The gift of a lifetime

When Julian Byrd, 18, applied for his driver’s license when he was 16 he expressed to his mother a desire to become an organ donor. Susan Deaton was aware and agreed with Julian’s wishes, but when faced with her son brain dead in the hospital the family felt they needed more time to be with the young man. Time was ticking. Lives were waiting.

More than 2 million Americans die each year, but only about 15,000 die under circumstances — primarily being declared brain dead — that make them eligible to donate organs. Of this number, only about 6,000 currently end up donating organs. A brain dead body hooked to a ventilator can last at most seven days. In Julian’s sixth day, time was ticking. Lives were waiting.

The story of Julian, his mother and the decision for organ donation will unfold as a part of the web documentary “The Gift of a Lifetime” created by FusionSpark Media, headed up by Langley resident Russell Sparkman. “The Gift of a Lifetime” begins a live webcast March 22 with two key story components, accompanied by a Web site full of information and resources regarding organ and tissue donation and transplantation.

“Giving the Gift,” researched in January, tells the stories of families and their decisions to donate, such as Julian’s. “Waiting for the Gift” will unfold live as a team of journalists, including Sparkman, travel to UCLA Medical Center this week to tell the up close stories of patients waiting for organ and tissue donations.

Anything could happen while “Waiting for the Gift.” Wednesday the team expects to visit a husband donating a kidney to his wife, but even that’s not guaranteed.

“Either one of them could spike a fever and that’d put everything on hold,” Sparkman said.

The clock is ticking, and only time will tell.

The launch comes just before April’s National Donate Life Month. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s first successful organ transplant.

“The gift of a Lifetime” is sponsored by the Coalition on Donation and the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation. Additional sponsorship is offered by the Philadelphia-based Gift of Life Donor Program, the largest organ donor and transplant agency in the U.S. that serves the eastern half of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. Gift of Life allowed the FusionSpark team to cover their employees’ daily duties and the stories of donation as they unfolded.

The team of journalists was in Philadelphia for 36 hours gathering interviews for “Giving the Gift” when they received word about a possible donor — Julian Byrd’s heart had stopped and he had suffered a brain death.

The important piece in Julian’s story, Sparkman said, was that he had talked with his mother about being a donor before.

“Nobody expects to ge that horrible call. Nobody expects to be asked if their family member would have wanted to donate,” he said. “Consider it a psychological insurance package of being in the position of knowing they’d want to donate.”

The team had full access to the donation coordination offices, hospital rooms and even surgical rooms.

The team witnessed many times how a donation can fill a void to a family who lost a loved one. While Susan spent a quiet moment with her dying son, Sparkman was right there in the room.

“It was the most dramatic, most emotional time of her life,” he said. “People talk about five phases of mourning, and donation has almost become a sixth for these families. It helped her in her grieving process knowing that the loss of her son has helped others.”

From Julian’s death came new life. His heart was donated to a 12-year-old girl, his liver went to a 21-year-old mother of one, his right lung was donated to a 59-year-old father of three, and the left lung went to a 62-year-old minister.

One of Sparkman’s pictures captures a surgeon cradling Julian’s heart.

“Seeing the entire process and hearing people talk about how donating is such a precious gift was just represented so well in this one moment with the surgeon,” he said.

In the U.S. about 18 people die every day while waiting on the organ transplant list. “The Gift of a Lifetime” is one of many Web documentaries created by FusionSpark Media whose advocacy documentaries to bridge inspiration with action.

“Our goal with this project is to increase donations,” he said.

The “The Gift of a Lifetime” site includes information that helps people understand donation, learn about the transplant waiting list, understand death before donation, learn the history and the myths of organ donation, and the stances by religious groups toward donation. There’s a full section of educational resources where teachers can download lesson plans and link resources for student projects.

People can visit “Become a Donor” and download donor cards, view their state’s donor registry, or share their decision with family and friends with an e-mail message.

“It’s so important for people to share their decision,” he said. “So many times people think they are donors but their families don’t know it and they are the ones left making the decision.”

It’s a multifaceted package for which FusionSpark often strives.

“We want to create stories about real people and their lives,” Sparkman said. “It’s important to us to add breadth and depth to a story.”

Langley-based journalist Sherry Mays has been a writer and editor for FusionSpark Media projects since 1991, and helped edit “Gift of a Lifetime.”

FusionSparks’ ability to use multiple media forms to immerse its audience in the subject matter is why Mays has been so keen to play an integral role.

“Their level of commitment to be storytellers is a call for action on many levels,” she said. “They show these incredible images of the faces of donation, allow you to hear their stories have them affect you.”

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