Wednesday morning, August 20, 1997, started just like every other school day...alarms, showers and breakfast. One small difference - I was not taking Justin to school that day. He was riding in his best friend's new pick-up truck.
I remember an enthusiastic "I love you, Mom; see ya later!” as Justin went outside. I smiled at the joy I could hear in his voice. I hope he heard my "I love you too, Buddy; have a great day!” before he closed the door. That would be my last exchange of words with my youngest child. The next time I would be by his side would be in the emergency room.
On their way home after school, at a bus stop, Justin stood up in the back of the truck to speak to friends. For some unknown reason, he tripped and fell. Emergency vehicles arrived within minutes and started life-saving procedures. In spite of their exhausting efforts, Justin was pronounced brain dead shortly after arriving at the emergency room. He was taken to the Intensive Care Unit, but we were given no hope of his survival.
As I sat there...holding his hand, begging him to wake up, pleading with God to spare my child...
I realized...Justin wasn't going home with me, his purpose on earth was complete, mine was yet to be revealed.
I did not want to take my eyes off him…his flawless face, his beautiful hair, his summer tan, his big hands that were just becoming a man's hands. It was just as important that I memorize each freckle across that perfect little nose. People were asking me questions but I couldn't speak…words seemed insignificant. My ‘living' was going to be unbearable without my child.
It was incredibly hard to leave Justin's bedside when I was asked to join my husband and hospital staff in a conference room. Today, I am so thankful that I recognized the importance of this meeting. I was introduced to the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency. When offered the opportunity of organ and tissue donation, there was no hesitation. We knew what Justin wanted.
Eleven months prior to his accident, Justin's grandfather (my father) died while waiting for a donor heart. Justin's eagerness to research donation and discover why his grandfather died made me very proud of him. At 15 years old, he was exploring a subject that most adults shy away from and yet he embraced it with youthful passion. Justin told us that if anything ever happened to him, he wanted to be a donor. His simple conclusion…if more people knew about organ donation; his PawPaw would still be alive. He said, "We gotta tell people, Momma.”
So…I do. Everyday, in some way, I talk about organ and tissue donation. It's the only thing that I have left that I can do for Justin. I didn't get to see him graduate from high school, I'll never see him married nor will I ever see the grandchildren I was looking forward to meeting.
But I have met the wonderful woman who received Justin's heart. Her name is Marilyn Thorn. Our families have grown extremely close and watching her "be” with them is very comforting to us. Her family was told that she had only 48 hours to live if she didn't receive her donor heart. A few hours later they were informed of their miracle. She has had eleven years to love her children and grandchildren that she would not have had…and that makes this mother's heart smile. That heart grew inside of me for nine months and then beat inside of my beautiful son for 15 ½ years. Because of the profound limitation of words, I can't explain how comforting it is to feel his?…her?…their?... heart beating.
While I thought meeting Marilyn would be the highlight of my journey as a donor mom, more comfort was in store. This is a photo taken of Marilyn along with Sue Acaldo at our home on the 5th anniversary of Justin's death. Sue received Justin's kidney and pancreas. She was insulin dependant for 27 years and on dialysis for two years prior to transplant. Now, she is insulin and dialysis free. We spent the 10th anniversary of Justin's death celebrating life…his life and those lives he saved through donation. Each year, we host a ‘Celebration of Life' on the anniversary of Justin's death. Our family is joined by many of our friends and these two wonderful recipients, to share memories, enjoy food, games and music. We release balloons – 150 green balloons for donor awareness, 5 white balloons to represent the five lives that Justin saved and two blue balloons to represent the two people who received sight.
Through God's grace I am able to share Justin's story with you. God did indeed hear my pleas as I held Justin's hand all through that night. As I began to emerge from the ‘fog' that exists during the first months of grief, I knew that I wanted to shout to the rafters that my son was a hero. Words had found their significance.
I began volunteering for the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA) in my new role as Donor Mom. I did not join the ‘living' world until I was able to do what Justin started - telling people about organ and tissue donation. It has led to my working full-time with LOPA.
I've shared Justin's story with the media many times. Judy Bastien wrote my favorite media quote… "Justin Harrison saved the lives of five people in 1997, when he was 15 years old. He did it without fanfare, through an act of quiet heroism”.
My son, Justin David Harrison, is my hero.