Patient Stories

Kelly’s Story of Loss and Life, Part One

Kelly Schmitt | Doylestown Health

April marks National Donate Life Month. More than 100,000 in the U.S. are waiting for a life-saving transplant — and about 20 people die every day waiting for an organ.

Kelly Schmitt never imagined that when she was encouraging her mom to go to Doylestown Hospital to get her cough and lungs examined, it would be the final time they’d speak in December 2007. But it was.

Kelly’s mom, Darlene, who had a history of chronic bronchitis and pneumonia, had recently become extremely ill. She also had a stubborn streak — albeit a selfless one — according to Kelly. Because of her illness, Darlene already missed a week of work as a psychotherapist. She didn’t want to miss any more time with the kids she counseled because she said, “They don’t do well with transition.” So Darlene didn’t seek treatment.

Sadly, that next night, Darlene stopped breathing. Kelly’s dad, Robert, immediately called 9-1-1. The paramedics arrived, revived her and rushed Darlene to the hospital but she continued to decline and started to experience seizures almost one after the other.

Turn of Events

She was then connected to machines keeping her alive and measuring her brain activity. Darlene’s physicians stated they needed to exhaust all testing options over the next 48 hours before a decision could be made, but if she did remain on life support, she would never have a normal life.

Kelly (an only child, who was 30 years old at the time) and her dad were faced with the magnitude of the situation. They knew Darlene — fiercely bright and independent — would not want a life of being reliant on others or machines to function.

“My mom would not be okay merely surviving — not able to breathe, walk, talk, or eat on her own,” explains Kelly, adding, “absolutely not.”

Armed with the facts of Darlene’s situation, our medical staff mentioned the option of organ donation to Kelly and her dad and about Gift of Life, a nonprofit organ procurement organization serving the Philadelphia area. They were interested in learning more so they met with a coordinator from the organization, who informed them on how organ donation worked and how many lives Darlene could potentially save if they made that decision.

“My mom’s whole life was about helping others and making their journey a little easier,” Kelly says. “So it made perfect sense for her to be an organ donor.”

The night before the medical team would meet again to discuss the case, Kelly and her dad made the heartbreaking decision to withdraw treatment for Darlene, after her vitals started to crash, and agreed to donate her viable organs. As a result, both of her kidneys were donated — saving two men — as well as her corneas to two other men. Her liver went to science and another 50 people received her tissues.

“My dad and I are very pragmatic people. We knew these people she helped needed her more than we did,” says Kelly.

Organ Donation Facts

Darlene’s physicians classified her as medically eligible for organ donation. But she wasn’t a registered organ donor (often indicated on a driver’s license), which is why the decision had to be made by her family. It can be overwhelming for families to have to decide something so significant at the end of their loved ones’ life, Kelly relates. But organ donation registration was designed to remove that challenge and she encourages everyone who can to register to become an organ donor.

Still misconceptions exist about organ donation and prevent many people from doing so. One of the biggest myths is that medical staff will withhold treatment to patients to more expeditiously donate their organs to a recipient.

The reality is that hospital medical professionals will always exhaust all treatment options, perform a series of tests, and determine that the patient will not live. Once they determine that the patient is medically eligible for organ donation, it is a rare and precious opportunity for that family’s loved one to provide life-saving gifts.

Then the organization will evaluate the patient’s chart, medical history, and other criteria, and consult with the medical team to determine if the patient can be a donor. Only 2.5 percent of all people die in a way that would allow for donation of their organs, according to information from Gift of Life.

A Bright Light

Once Kelly and her dad made the decision, her mom’s donation surgery happened at Doylestown Hospital. The nurse who was treating Darlene knew Kelly couldn’t be there, so she held Darlene’s hand throughout the surgery. She also displayed the framed picture next to her head in the operating room that Kelly had taken to the hospital of her one-year-old grandson.

“She made sure my mom was never alone. She was our guardian angel and helped us get through the worst night of our life,” Kelly says. “She was amazing!”

While what happened with Darlene was emotionally exhausting and extremely difficult, Kelly found the silver lining.

“We had no idea that organ donation was something that she’d be viable for, but when we were given that opportunity, it felt like a lifeline for us — because there was some positivity in all of this,” shares Kelly. “We wanted to do whatever we could for the next person in line, no matter what that happened to be.”

Kelly’s efforts didn’t end with her mom’s donation. She became inspired to volunteer and speak for Gift of Life. And there’s one more contribution Kelly made. Read Part Two to find out what that is.

  • For more information on organ donation or to register to become an organ donor, visit Gift of Life.

About Doylestown Health and Doylestown Hospital

Doylestown Health is a comprehensive healthcare system of inpatient, outpatient and wellness education services connected to meet the health needs of all members of the local and regional community. Doylestown Hospital, the flagship to Doylestown Health, has 247 beds and a Medical Staff of more than 435 physicians in over 50 specialties. An independent nonprofit health system, Doylestown Health is dedicated to providing innovative, patient-centered care for all ages.

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