In the Wake of Loss, The Healing Impact of Organ Donation By SUSAN PARKER

Tuesday April 05, 2005

It was by coincidence that I was catching up with Eleanor Vincent a day after Terri Schiavo passed away and at the start of National Donate Life Month, but the significance was not lost on either of us. Thirteen years ago Eleanor’s daughter Maya was declared brain dead by her doctors after a freak accident left her in an irreversible coma. At the request of Maya’s neurosurgeon, Eleanor made the life affirming decision to donate Maya’s organs to others in need. Last year her memoir, Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story was published by Capital Books. In it, she describes this heart wrenching event, and the repercussions Maya’s death has had on her, Maya’s younger sister, Meghan, family members, friends, and the recipients of Maya’s organs.  

At Roos Café on upper Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, Eleanor and I sat down and discussed her book and the recent news on the Schiavos, the Schindlers, the pope, the right to lifers, and how a devastating accident can forever change many lives. 

Since the publication of her memoir Eleanor has become a national spokesperson on the affirmative effect of her decision to donate Maya’s organs. Her appearances include transplantation symposiums at Stanford University, in-service transplantation seminars for nurses and doctors, and keynote speeches at donor recognition events, as well as appearances at bookstores and libraries. She has received a Community Service Award from the California Transplant Donor Network for her work raising awareness of the healing impact of organ donation. 

In 1992 Eleanor was a single, working mother, living in a small apartment in Lafayette. High-spirited, talented 19-year-old Maya had just been accepted into the Theater Arts program at UCLA and she was home from Santa Barbara City College to celebrate. While Eleanor was at work and Meghan at school, Maya and three friends drove to Morgan Territory in Eastern Contra Costa where, on a dare, Maya climbed a fence and jumped on the back of a grazing horse. The animal reared, Maya fell, hit her head and never regained consciousness. For several days she lay in a coma at John Muir Hospital where Eleanor agonized by her bedside. When she learned that Maya was brain dead, and doctors were withdrawing life support, Eleanor’s decision to donate her daughter’s organs provided her with a bittersweet sense of solace. “Organ donation was an opportunity to make something good come out of this tragedy,” she says softly. “The cycle of life would continue.” 

Maya’s heart was given to a man with a wife and two young children. As time went by Eleanor struck up a relationship with the recipient and his family. “Meeting them made my grief bearable,” says Eleanor. “It gave a larger meaning to what had happened. A family was able to stay together because of Maya’s heart. I would have done anything to keep another family from going through the terrible loss our family experienced.”  

Approximately 83,000 Americans are awaiting organ transplants. By telling her story, Eleanor Vincent illustrates the unique relationship between organ donors and the recipients of their gifts, and the healing power of that connection. Since Maya’s death Eleanor has completed the MFA program in Creative Writing at Mills College and gone on to teach a graduate level class there entitled the Craft of Creative Non-Fiction. “We examine how the writer confronts and structures strong and often ambiguous or conflicting emotions in a skillful way,” says Eleanor. Having read her book, and met the woman in person, I can attest to Eleanor’s firm grasp of this subject matter. Swimming With Maya is a memoir that confronts controversial subjects, reflects upon difficult situations, and deals with issues that are currently capturing our national collective conscious.  

Eleanor Vincent will give a presentation on the healing impact of organ donation and sign books on Wednesday, April 13, 6 p.m., at the First Church of Religious Science, 5000 Clarewood Dr., Oakland. For more information on Swimming With Maya and for an extensive list of links to organ donation, transplantation, grief and bereavement organizations, go to www.swimmingwithmaya.com. ?