Organ donation non-profit helps turn one family's loss into another's hope

on Friday, 19 October 2012.

This article by Lindy Washburn originally appeared on

Bill Reitsma sat eye-to-eye with a woman whose son was in a hospital intensive care unit.

Bill Reitsma of the New Jersey Sharing Network, which helps arrange organ transplants, next to a quilt showing donors' faces. He has advocated for organ donation for more than three decades.

Guilt, raw and ugly, ate at her. Her son, who was epileptic, had apparently suffered a seizure before falling into the family pool. He had been resuscitated by the first aid squad, but now doctors said he was brain dead.

Reitsma had come to the ICU with an important question: Would the boy's mother consent to donating his organs? Would she allow surgeons to remove her son's heart, liver and kidneys to be transplanted in others?

She'd refused earlier when an ICU doctor had asked, he knew. Now she repeatedly told Reitsma, "I'm an awful mother." But, she added, "I know there's another mother out there who wants something good to happen."

And then she agreed.

Though that was many years ago, it's a story Reitsma tells often. He is a vice president for clinical services and an original staff member of the New Jersey Sharing Network, the agency that recovers and places organs and tissue for transplant in New Jersey. Behind his desk at the non-profit's New Providence headquarters hangs a framed letter written by the girl who received that boy's heart. In a few short sentences, it sums up his life's work, Reitsma says.

The letter from Joy is written in a child's careful penmanship: "I feel bad that you lost your child. I think it was very kind of your family to donate the heart. I am glad I have another chance of life. … I really appreciate you giving me what I needed. I pray for you and your child." In a postscript, she added: "I am home from the hospital and doing well."

In a society in which many people find it daunting merely to attend a funeral, Reitsma has plunged into crises at intensive-care units and emergency rooms for decades with calm, empathy and a determination to bring good from tragedy, life from death. Of families awash in grief and shock, he has asked generosity. When families have lost every hope, he has asked them to offer hope – to a stranger on a transplant list. And to his continual amazement, more often than not they have said yes.

"I have a job that everybody looks at as being so very, very difficult," he said, "but when you meet these wonderful people, it's actually a real blessing."

The lives saved include that of Bryan Mueller, a 25-year-old baker and corporate recruiter. Mueller, who lives in New Milford, was 17 and had been on the waiting list for a kidney for three months when his 22-year-old donor died in a car crash. Along with a kidney, Mueller got a new family. His donor's sisters have become his great friends; they all went camping together earlier this month.

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