Twenty years ago, my life was forever changed by a national tragedy and by a gift from a stranger. As a seventeen year old teenager, I suddenly found myself in a life-and-death situation, hiding under a computer table in the library of Columbine High School as two of my classmates went on a ruthless shooting rampage. I was one of the twenty-four wounded students, thirteen others sadly lost their lives. A close range shotgun blast caused devastating injuries to my right shoulder, arm and hand. Once I was stabilized in the ICU, doctors spent days trying to think of ways to save my arm from amputation.
At the time, nobody in my family was aware of tissue or bone donation. We knew of the life-saving gift of organ donation, of course. My parents were shocked when a doctor in Denver suggested using allografts (human tissue or bone recovered from a deceased donor) to save and reconstruct my hand and shoulder. After a lot of discussion, the decision was unanimous… donated bones were the best option for giving me a chance of keeping right arm and hand, even if the function would be limited.
The surgery was a success. My right arm and hand were reconstructed using allografts; a humerus bone and smaller bones for my hand. The physical healing process was long and difficult. The emotional and mental recoveries from the shooting were equally as difficult, if not harder. For many years, my mind was too preoccupied with battling severe PTSD to focus any attention on the donation given to me.
Nearly five years after Columbine, I was given the opportunity to ride on the Donate Life Float in the Rose Parade. Spending the weekend in the company of donor families and fellow recipients opened my eyes to the life-changing impacts of donation. The experience stirred a passion in my heart; a passion to find purpose and life in the gifts I had received. I started sharing my story publicly, speaking at conferences about how tissue donation provided me a second chance at living a full life.
One time, when I was speaking, an audience member asked, “Did the bone donations save your life?” My initial response was ‘no’, but as I pondered the question my answer quickly changed. I started to ask myself-what is life? To me, life is holding the hands of my four children, hugging them with two arms when they get home from school, holding a book in one hand and a child in the other. The gifts given to me through donation absolutely saved my life. How very different my life would look with only one arm. With two arms, I feel mended and whole…in mind and body. That is life; life given to me by a family wanting the story of their loved one to continue in the life of another. I feel honored to be given this second chance at a quality life, and to carry the story of another with every hug I share with my husband and children.
Please register to become an organ, eye and tissue donor at DonateLifeNC.org so that others can give and receive hugs too.
Kacey Johnson, Cary, North Carolina