State organ donor policy fulfills Shauna's hope
Shauna’s life was filled with hope and purpose. She was 17, an artist, writer, performer and, for one so young, intensely interested in social justice. Shauna was Ian and Amy Kaufman’s daughter, and Holly’s older sister. She had finished her junior year at Sussex Central High School and was driving from a friend’s house to her summer job. It was June 18, mid-afternoon. The road was slick from rain, and she probably took the curve a little too fast. She crashed into a telephone pole and died instantly.
As if that wasn’t enough unbearable news for the Kaufman family, there was more. At the scene of the accident, they pointed out to several officials that Shauna had wanted to be an organ donor.
“We even left her side earlier than we wanted because we knew of the importance of time,” Amy Kaufman recalled.
But, somehow, Shauna’s request got forgotten until it was too late.
“Shauna and I talked about being a donor after she got her license,” said Kaufman. “She told us it was the right thing to do, and she didn’t think twice. Our generation never thought about such things when we learned to drive. Now, we both have little red heart symbols on our driver’s ID.”
Kaufman was deeply bothered that the hope had been extinguished for her daughter’s death to help someone else. She called Delaware’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) and spoke directly to the chief medical examiner, Dr Richard Callery, to explain the situation. He told her, “I give you my personal word that I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
In turn, he charged the department’s deputy director, Hal Brown, to investigate.
Brown was determined not to look at this as an isolated incident nor sweep it under the rug. He saw it as an opportunity to review the whole system of reporting deaths to Delaware’s donor agency, Gift of Life (GOL). Brown talked to the department’s seven medical-legal forensic death investigators and determined that each prioritized the potential of organ donation differently. In fact, there was no written policy for the investigators to follow.
Brown called Kaufman and gently told her his findings. Kaufman remembers him saying, “I’m so sorry, Amy. We dropped the ball.” His honest acknowledgement that a mistake had been made sparked a ray of hope in Kaufman’s broken heart: someone in authority was listening and something would be done.
“I could hear the compassion and integrity in his voice. Here was someone with the will to learn from mistakes and right a wrong. He made a huge difference,” Kaufman said.
Brown suggested that he, Kaufman and Chris Graham, Sussex County’s GOL regional coordinator, form a partnership to write the new policy.
“There was a fourth partner,” said Brown. “Shauna was always with us in the back of our minds. We wanted this policy to speak for her.”
In the preamble of the policy are the words of Callery and the thrust of its intent: “This office (OCME) shall consider each case as a potential donor unless otherwise indicated by the family.”
This means that the OCME investigator will notify GOL of virtually any unexpected death occurring “in the field,” as opposed to in a hospital. Thus, on the very worst day in a family’s life, there becomes an opportunity to either save or substantially improve the quality of life of another person.
Graham explained, “When we get the call, we are given the name and age of the deceased person, their legal next of kin, known health problems and the condition of the body. We look in the DoT (Department of Transportation) database to see if the person self-consented on their driver’s license. Then one of our specially trained personnel calls the family and talks about the potential of tissue donation. Often, the conversation includes grief counseling, and many times the family is relieved to find something positive that they can do by giving consent.”
Organs, such as the heart, lung, kidney and liver, are donated by families of people who die in the hospital, so they can be removed immediately after brain death has occurred. But, from deaths in the field, tissue including skin, bone, heart valves and corneas have a 12- to 24-hour window of opportunity. Incredibly, up to 50 patients can be helped from each donation.
Examples of how tissues help include the elderly who were losing their sight and now can see to drive, children with burns and workers who need spinal fusions. At this time, more than 104,000 people nationwide are awaiting various transplants.
John Green, GOL’s director of community affairs, said, “Donor families are able to get a sense of comfort that some good has happened from their tragedy. This is something that every major religion supports, and the funeral homes are very knowledgeable of the process. Of course, there is never a charge, as they are the ones giving a priceless gift.”
Green continued, “It really is helpful for families when their loved one has already designated their wish to donate on their driver’s license. It’s also important for families to communicate to each other their wishes so at a time of crisis the decision has already been thought through.”
Nov. 13-15 has been designated National Donor Sabbath. It is a time when religious leaders are encouraged to raise the issue in their sermons. GOL has speakers available to participate, by request.
You don’t have to wait for your license to be renewed to indicate your desire to be a donor. Just go to the Web site at www.donatelife-DE.org.
Delaware’s new OCME policy is among the first in the nation. The policy is called Shauna’s Hope. That was Hal Brown’s idea.
“I was mulling it over, trying to think how her own hope, expressed on her driver’s license, could become her legacy.”
Shauna’s Hope already has legs. The city of Philadelphia, which has more residents than the entire state of Delaware, is investigating a similar policy, and other jurisdictions are making inquiries.
“It’s ironic,” said Graham. “Thanks to Amy’s persistence and her love for her daughter, more people will be helped by Shauna’s death than if the process had unfolded as it normally should.”
The Kaufman family has incorporated The Shauna Rose Kaufman Foundation in her honor. The tax-exempt foundation is expected to serve many community needs, including using Shauna’s Hope to increase public awareness about organ and tissue donation. For more information, go to www.ShaunaRoseKaufmanfoundation.com.