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Sentara honors organ donors

In addition to the American and Virginian flags that fly on towering poles near the front entrance to Sentara Obici Hospital, visitors see one other banner.

Usually, that flag is Sentara’s corporate standard, a white background with the company’s two-part golden swirl. Recently, though, visitors may have noticed a different flag in place of the Sentara one.

The new flag urges visitors to “Donate Life.” It will be flown for a week whenever a patient becomes an organ donor there. Donated by LifeNet, the flag also flew throughout the month of April in honor of National Donate Life Month.

Flying the flag at the time of an organ donation is intended to raise awareness of the need for organ donors. It also is a public acknowledgement of a private and very painful experience for the donor’s family.

That’s an experience that Mike and Doris Babcock understand only too well.

Their adult son, Eric, was a popular figure in the Ocean View area of Norfolk, they said in a recent interview. His nickname was “E-Love,” and at 34 years old, he “had a lot of girlfriends.”

A jack-of-all-trades, Eric had worked as a carpenter, an electrician and a plumber, his parents said. But he loved parties, and — by all accounts — he was the life of those he attended. “The party really never got started until Eric showed up,” his father recalled.

On Sept. 13, Eric suffered “a heart event.” By the time he was discovered, his brain had been without oxygen for some time. During five days in Obici’s intensive care unit, he never regained consciousness. During that period, his family learned something about Eric’s character — not just from the many friends who came by to visit and spend time with them, but also from the revelation that he had chosen to be an organ donor.

The fact that he had already made the decision made things much easier for them, they said. When it became clear that their son could never be revived because of the brain damage, they stepped back and watched the organ donation process unfold.

“It was almost a relief to say to LifeNet, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Mike Babcock said. “We didn’t have to agonize over it, because they had their own timeline.”

LifeNet Health is an organization that coordinates organ donations and transplants throughout the region.

As Eric’s family came to grips with his fate, LifeNet was working simultaneously to help with the grieving process and to see if any of his organs could help save another life. As it turned out, both of his kidneys were able to be transplanted into other patients.

“Two people are still alive because of Eric’s generosity,” his father said. “That’s comforting.”

Suffolk’s Nancy Young knows just what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such generosity.

By Thanksgiving 1993, her heart was functioning at only 10 percent of its capacity. She had already been placed on a waiting list for a transplant, and a visit to the hospital one morning had ended with her admission there and doctor’s orders not to leave until that transplant came through, a process that was expected to take nine to 12 months.

Young’s heart problems were a side effect of the chemotherapy medicine used to treat her non-Hodgkin lymphoma several years earlier. She had been warned of the potential problems, and she was aware of her growing physical limitations, but even the cardiac failure that had landed her in the hospital on Super Bowl Sunday in 1992 hadn’t convinced her that her heart problems were so serious.

“Up until the part (in 1993) where they wouldn’t allow me to leave the hospital, I thought they didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said.

Her diminished heart function meant that she couldn’t transfer a load of clothes from the washer to the dryer, she had to sweep the floor in thirds and she was in bed — exhausted — by 8 p.m. each night. Visiting the mountains, a favorite former retreat, was entirely out of the question.

Lying in a hospital bed at the end of 1993, she had been told that only a child’s heart would fit her frame — and she was warned that most parents don’t allow their children’s organs to be donated.

There was a good chance, she understood, that her 6-year-old son would grow up without his mother.

“We had so many people doing prayer chains for us,” she recalled recently.

Six weeks after she was admitted, there was a flurry of activity in her hospital room and a doctor told her a donor heart was on the way.

“I felt lucky, number one,” she said. “But I felt sadness … for the donor family, because I knew they were suffering. But I felt a lot of joy, because I knew I’d be able to see my son grow up, to see my husband in his golden years. I was doing a lot of smiling.”

The surgery took just four hours. Young said she was up and around that same night.

“I felt different immediately,” she said. “My hands and feet were warm. My head was clear. And it just got better after that.”

Within a week, she had walked three miles around the hospital grounds. Two years later, she visited the mountains in Charlottesville and even took a hot air balloon ride to celebrate.

Young has always hoped for the chance to meet the mother of her donor, an opportunity that woman has opted never to accept through LifeNet.

“I don’t think I could stop holding her hand or touching her,” Young said. “I would tell her, ‘You gave me a chance to be with my son, to watch him grow, and now to see my grandchildren grow.’”

In fact, the son whose mother owes her life to the decision that another mother made 16 years ago has gone on to make his own sacrifices, Young said.

After two tours of duty in Iraq, he holds an Army Commendation Medal for valor displayed in the war there.

“I hope that my being there, being with my son, helped him become who he is,” Young said.

To learn more about organ donation, visit www.save7lives.org or call LifeNet at 1-800-847-7831.