By Riley Manning
In January 2008, the nightmare of every parent became reality for Laura Gaskin when she lost her son Matthew in a tragic car accident. Though his contagious smile and sense of humor were gone, Matthew’s passion for helping others had one more breath.
Studying to become an emergency medical technician, Matthew knew the importance of organ donors, and had registered to give his own in case the worst happened.
“I remember him bringing it up to us, sitting at the table,” Gaskin said. “He said, ‘When I die, I’m not going to need these body parts, because I’ll be in heaven.’”
Matthew’s body went on to help 39 people over 17 states, the youngest a 7-year-old girl in need of a heart valve replacement.
“It was a comfort to know that out of our tragedy there can be a blessing,” Gaskin said. “It was strange at first, but I would do anything to save someone from going through what we had to.”
Breaking the stigma
In her son’s memory, Gaskin started a scholarship fund in Matthew’s honor. The six $500 scholarships to Mississippi State University are funded through an annual golf tournament, the Tiki Classic, and help raise awareness about the difference being an organ donor can make.
“For lots of people it’s never crossed their mind,” she said. “But it’s best to make the decision beforehand than have to deal with it when you’ve just lost a loved one.”
Gaskin also works closely with the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency, speaking at events and civic clubs. Ron Waterman and Charlotte Mullinnix, Family Services coordinator and director of Corporate Relations, respectively, say the public often harbors a stigma regarding organ donation.
“One thing we deal with is the myth of mutilation,” Waterman said.
“There is less cutting done on a full tissue donor than in the average autopsy.”
Mullinnix, who has worked with MORA for over 16 years, said when she started she was taken aback by the number of people who pass on becoming donors because of their religious beliefs.
“Everyone has their personal beliefs, and we’re not pushing anything on anyone, but I wasn’t prepared for so many people to turn us down on the basis of religion,” she said.
But Waterman, a 32-year pastor before coming to MORA, said no major denominations or religions prohibit organ donation.
Even Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refuse blood transfusions, allow for organ donations when the organs have been drained of the donor’s blood.
Mullinnix said the hesitation usually comes from older folks, but youngsters rarely think twice.
“My generation are the ones who step back,” she said. “But when you ask them if they would accept an organ donation to save themselves or a loved one, they are quick to say yes.”
Another aspect that convinces people to become donors, Gaskin said, is when they realize how many people can be helped, and how much can be used from one body.
“Not only organs like livers and kidneys, but tissue donations can help anything from bone fusion to a skin graft,” she said.
“My body, given up for you”
While MORA is not religiously affiliated, Waterman takes his part in it as seriously as any moral mission.
“The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made,” he said. “Why would we want to just throw it away? If the last thing a person does is express love, what better way to live out a spiritual existence?”
To help educate the public, MORA is emploring local pastors to participate in a Donor Sabbath Weekend.
Participating churches are invited to provide organ donor card inserts for bulletins and newsletters, and inviting a transplant recipient or donor to share their story with the congregation.
“Leaders in the faith community are ideal channels to raise awareness about organ donation,” Gaskin said.
“I gave a speech in Hatley and a youth minister came up to me after and said, ‘You know I never thought about it,’ and I said, ‘Well you’re in a perfect position.’”
“The Bible talks about stewardship,” Waterman said.
“Stewardship of money, of time, of talent. This is stewardship of life. The Bible tells us to help people in need. If they’re hungry, feed them. If they’re naked, clothe them.”
The proof of the good, Gaskin said, comes from letters of donation recipients.
Everyone knows someone who has undergone a procedure that required an organ or tissue donation of some kind.
“One recipient was an 82-year-old woman who needed a fibula shaft. She was used to a very active lifestyle, but couldn’t do what she wanted until she got Matthew’s donation,” Gaskin said. “It’s been a blessing to honor his wishes and know he’s still helping people.”