On Mom’s Birthday: The Ultimate Gift

Today would have been my mom’s 65th birthday. She passed away two years ago just five days after turning 63. Her death certificate reads “probable aortic aneurysm.” That’s a bulge or weakening in the lower part of the aorta, the major blood vessel that supplies blood to the body. It’s as good of a guess as any. Mom was sick for years before she passed. In the last month before her death, she spent more days in a hospital than out. I wish I could tell you exactly what was wrong: that she had some sort of cancer or other readily diagnosable problem. But her illnesses (yes, plural) baffled doctors. She would have been a terrific test case for Dr. House.

In addition to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure (that was a new thing: she, her mom and I all have really low BP, but then mom’s skyrocketed), and the lovely bipolar disorder, docs eventually slapped her with the diagnosis of “mixed connective tissue disease.” I know. What? It’s a mix of various autoimmune disorders including lupus, Reynaud’s and rheumatoid arthritis. Yep, mom had all of those. Steroids were about the only thing that helped, but of course, you’re not supposed to be on those long-term. MCTD didn’t exactly do her in, but it paved the way. When you’re popping a kaleidoscope of pills hoping one will make your day somewhat grin-and-bearable, it takes a toll on your body. Not eating and drinking will do that too, and towards the end, mom was unable to keep much down.

Mom was an organ donor, but in the end, her body was so spent that the only part they could use were her corneas. And her body. Years before becoming ill, mom did one of the most selfless things a person can do: she signed the paperwork that would donate her body to a medical college upon her passing. The fact that mom died in a hospital made this donation easier, but one needn’t be in such a setting to give this gift. Every large state medical college accepts donated bodies (also referred to as cadavers). They’re used to teach residents the ins and outs of the human body (things you can’t learn from a textbook). Sometimes they’re used for research purposes. You can find info about your state’s process by googling the name of your state + body donation. That’s what I did after mom died. In her honor, I’m now a body donor too. I know it’s not for everyone. The way I see it, when I’m dead, I’m done with my body. I don’t want a funeral where people can gawk at my remains. We still had a lovely memorial service for mom after she died; and then, about six months later, the medical school sent us her ashes. There were also several touching services held at the medical school for the families of those loved ones who gave this ultimate gift.  It didn’t cost my family a dime, and I feel certain that her donation has helped several doctors become better at what they do. My mom was a very giving person, so the fact that she did this doesn’t surprise me. I know it can be off-putting to some, which is why I encourage you to learn more about body donation. It may not be the right choice for you, so consider organ donation instead. And the next time you see a doctor, send up a silent thanks to people like my mom who, in the end, really did give their all.