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Having the Heart of a Sky Diver

Updated on May 1, 2012
Photo credit Kyle Schoonover, Sacramento Bee
Photo credit Kyle Schoonover, Sacramento Bee

The heart donation

This morning, amongst the plentiful stories about the gloom of the recession, crime sprees and other random death stories, I was drawn by the story of a 70-year-old man, afraid of heights, who chose to sky dive for the first time, to honor the heart donor, a former sky diving instructor, who gave him new life.

It was a noble and appropriate gesture for a truly wonderful human act.

On Mother's Day In 1996, 22-year-old Elizabeth Polyniak was on her way home from her 100th sky dive in Hollister, California, when she was in a fatal car crash. A horrible circumstance I cannot fully grasp. Healthy, vibrant 22-year-olds are not supposed to die. At that age, our mortality is usually the farthest thing from our minds - amplified by the sense of fearlessness by one who chose to confront it 100 times jumping from an airplane in the sky - something most of us will never do in our lifetimes.

But this young woman chose to be an organ donor. Her death resulted in five organ transplants and other tissue donations - one of those to Jennings.

In 1995, Jennings was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a viral disease that weakens the heart, and would have killed him. By my estimation, that would have made him 56. As a result, he has been able to get to witness the birth and growth of six grandchildren, who were born after his heart transplant.

The full video story is here.

A 7-year-Old's gift

In 1997, we took a trip to Italy, a wonderful, beautiful old country, along with our 17-month-old daughter. Everywhere we went, the smiles of strangers surrounded us - we found that Italians absolutely loved children, and our precocious little daughter seemed like a celebrity wherever we went. While we were there, I recall a story resonating from a few years earlier that did not have as happy of an outcome as our trip.

While vacationing in Italy in 1994, the Green family from Bodega Bay, California was driving through the beautiful countryside when another car - highway robbers - came alongside theirs and fired a shot into their vehicle, killing their seven-year-old son Nicholas. This was not a normal occasion in Italy, and certainly not anything for which the Green family could have prepared. But in a country with old and deep religious values, the country was shocked when his parents agreed to donate Nicholas' organs and corneas, which went to seven Italians awaiting transplants.

The country, and the world took notice - something that later became known as "The Nicholas Effect" (see the book written by Reg Green, Nicholas' father here at the web link below). According to their website, organ donations in Italy have tripled since Nicholas was killed - which means thousands of people who would have otherwise died, have been saved by organ and tissue donors.

I have difficulty imagining the magnitude of such a circumstance, and yet I agree wholeheartedly with the decision made by Nicholas' parents. A video retelling of his story may be found at:

Olympic medalist and liver transplant recipient Chris Klug

Why not?

My sense is that there are a large number of people who fervently believe in donation, just as there are a large number of people who, under no circumstance, would consider giving up their organs, either out of some deeply-held beliefs, or misinformation. So, I target this message to those misinformed, and to those on the fence, or who just haven't wanted to think about this issue, because they don't want to think about their own mortality.

First, the latter. This is going to sound obvious on the surface, and I'm sorry to remind you of this, but we are all going to die. Eventually. We are on a return trip to the place where we originated. We can analyze the meaning of our existence, we can argue over God, the creation of the universe, over values, over politics and ideologies. But you can argue all you want about mortality, and you're still going to die. I'm sorry to be so blunt about it, but there it is.

Second, we are not our bodies. We don't take them with us, wherever we go. I've always been amazed about the varied opinions of others over whether they want to be buried or cremated, or frankly about most any post-death decision of this nature. Those decisions affect those who are left when we pass, but they aren't really that relevant to us personally, are they? For those who want to be buried, I hate to break it to you, but it's the same result as those cremated - the body will deteriorate and eventually pass away anyway. We speculate over cryogenics, with this kind of hopeful delusion that we can find a way to live forever through our bodies. They weren't built for forever.

We clearly don't need our bodies for whatever happens next.

On the other hand, there are so many people, still on waiting lists today for life-saving donations of organs and tissues. Real people, with valuable lives and loving families, with hopes and desires for the future, whose lives are on pause because they have a poor heart, kidney, eyes, etc. It's tragic to think that they must perish not because there is no hope available to save them. Medical science is amazing. I can't fathom how something so vital to our existence is able to be transported from one person to another. It's mind-boggling. But it can be done.

Q: But what if I'm on the fence - I may live or die, and some overzealous doctor ends my life because he sees I'm a donor? Won't he be more inclined to let me die to save another patient? I'm glad you asked! ;-) First of all, this would be an amazingly improbable, ethically untenable circumstance. So to base a decision to donate on a question such as this is similar to saying I'm not going to buckle up when I drive, because if I get into an auto accident, I may not be able to unbuckle to get out of a burning car (forgetting that if you are in that bad of an accident without a seatbelt, it's pretty irrelevant!)

But, tackling this question - when you go into the ER, you have a team of medical professionals attending to you. You are the patient and their focus is on saving you. These are not the same people who are responsible for the donation program. Only when the medical probability of you dying does the condition get reported, and then there are ethical checks and balances before (a) those decisions are made and (b) effectuated. I mean, think about what we're imagining here - you are not going to die, but a doctor snuffs you so someone else may live. It's possible, but extremely unlikely. And, what we're talking about here is whether or not you should donate an organ to save another's life. There's a certain point where you have to weigh an irrational fear versus the potential to make a life-giving donation to save another human's life.

To me, there's a certain realization that we're not in charge of much, when it comes to our biological existence. I found the decision to donate to be an easy one. I found it even easier when I imagined how I would feel if my own child was ill and on a recipient list for a vital organ. It's that real.


Donate Life California:

American Heart Association:

The Nicholas Green Foundation:

A series of resource links:


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    • Gerg profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from California

      Thanks for sharing your story, KEB. It's certainly sobering to hear the real life effects of these actions.

    • Kebennett1 profile image


      9 years ago from San Bernardino County, California

      I was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy 7 years ago. I am one of the few people who are fortunate enough to have experienced remission. Right now my ejection fraction is 66%. At one point my cardiologist was readying me to be put on a transplant list. I know how important donor's are. My life almost depended on one! I have been warned that at any time my Cardiomyopathy can become active again. I still suffer the affects of it. I have difficulty breating when I walk very far, especially on an upgrade, or stairs. I tire easily. My heart is still weak. If I die and there is even one single organ or piece of tissue left good on my body, I pray that it is useful to somebody. I certainly won't do me any good :) and if I can help to save the life of someone else or increase the quality of their life, then my life truly will have meant something and my death will not have been in vain. I too urge everyone to become a donor. Someone's life may depend on it!

    • Gerg profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from California

      Thanks Deb!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This is a topic close to my heart and one I am deeply passionate about. I have been a donor since I first understood that I could be. I want someone else to have whatever part of me that is viable and can be helpful to those in need...down to the skin on my back, then cremated. I am a card carrying Neptune Society gal/cremation already paid for. For me, it's a no brainer. I couldn't live with myself knowing that I hadn't done these things.

      Thanks Greg. Great writing!

    • Gerg profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from California

      Thanks for your thoughts, MTG!

    • Midtown Girl profile image

      Midtown Girl 

      9 years ago from Right where I want to be!

      Such a deeply personal decision for anyone to make.  One that should be respected regardless of the choice, especially when children are invovled. 

      Everyone should have a full understanding of what it means to be a donor, or more importantly educate themselves on the common misinformation. 

      You have certainly given some enlightening thoughts to the topic.

    • Gerg profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment G-Ma J; I completely agree!

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 

      9 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      Since I got my driver's license ummm...51 years ago sshhhh...I have been a donor...I figure if something I have is working and will help someone else why not??? What good are my eyes to me if I am dead? or any other thing that may be needed...G-Ma :O) Hugs

    • Gerg profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from California


    • Pete Maida profile image

      Pete Maida 

      9 years ago

      I am a donor and I have never seen a reason not to be a donor. Most religions believe it is the immortal soul that is valued; not the body. If another can be saved; they can have whatever part of me is useful after I'm gone.


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