NEWBURYPORT — Three people who know the power of a selfless act paid a visit to City Hall on Monday to ask everyone to become organ donors.
Valentine’s Day is also National Organ Donor Day, and New England Donor Services celebrated the gift of life by sharing the stories of three people touched by organ donation who urged others to sign up to be organ and tissue donors during a special ceremony at City Hall.
Jim LaFontaine, the pastor of Emmanuel Community Church in Essex, was the recipient of a donor heart in 2013 after spending six months in the hospital on a transplant list.
“The man who passed and was able to donate his heart was of a faith that did not recognize organ donation,” LaFontaine said. “He was with his adult son when he was renewing his license and he checked ‘heart donor.’ His son asked him why he did it and he told him, ‘Well, if I can help a child or a young person, I’m not going to need it.’”
Although the donor’s heart did not go to a child, his son was comforted by the fact it went to LaFontaine.
“Since that time, I have been able to see both of my children get married,” LaFontaine said. “Without this heart, I would not be here. It is that simple.”
Carol Dullea told the story of her 11-month-old grandson, Ethan, who was the victim of a freak accident while visiting a redwood forest with his family in Monterey, California, in 1999.
“Ethan was asleep with his head resting on (his father’s) shoulder,” Dullea said. “I remember a sudden gust of wind, people screaming and a limb of a giant redwood tree fell and hit Ethan in the head. In that split second of time, our lives changed forever.”
Dullea’s grandson died three days later and, because his parents had designated him an organ donor, his liver was donated to a boy in the Northwest and his kidneys transplanted into a 55-year-old Pennsylvania man.
“In our pain, suddenly there was a feeling of peace,” Dullea said. “It felt like the sun had come out in the middle of a terrible storm. Finally, something wonderful would come out of this terrible tragedy.”
Dullea said her family was blessed to have Ethan in their lives and so were the families of his organ donations.
“On that day in 1999, we were exactly where we were supposed to be in that moment in time,” Dullea said. “It has been 21 years and at times, it still seems like yesterday. But through this story, Ethan, the beautiful, lovely and cuddly little guy, who was so full of love, has touched more people in his short life than I ever will touch in mine.”
Dullea, who lives in Lynn, continues to advocate for organ donation.
“I ask everyone to consider organ donation,” Dullea said. “If you already are, please spread the word. It can make all of the difference, not only to the recipients, but to the grieving, heartbroken donor family. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it certainly softens the sorrow.”
Liz Sandeman, the state chair of the Massachusetts Lions Organ Donation Awareness Committee, also shared her personal story Monday morning.
Sandeman’s sister Teresa donated some of her own organs after contracting a rare lung disease and dying at the age of 54.
“Please be the hope for another family and register,” Sandeman said.
More than 1,248 lives were saved in New England last year because of organ donation, according to New England Donor Services.
There are 110 million registered organ donors in the country and more than 112,500 patients on the U.S. transplant waiting list, according to New England Donor Services.
People of all ages can become organ donors. The majority of people in the state register at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, with a small heart printed on the driver’s license to signify they are organ donors.
Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, state Rep. Jim Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, and a representative from the office of state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, presented proclamations and citations to New England Donor Services at City Hall during the ceremony Monday.
“This is really important work,” Holaday said.
For more on New England Donor Services: www.neds.org.
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.