It is clear from the letters, flowers and small balloons that still appear on Michelle Barnett's grave that she gave much in life.
Michelle, 32, and her husband, Dennis Barnett, 34, had opened their home to a troubled student who Michelle taught as an eighth-grade English and social studies teacher in Terre Haute, Ind., and to baby raccoons Dennis came across in his work as an animal control officer.
At least once a week, Shelia Fisher visits the grave of her Michelle, who died in August after a tractor-trailer accident on Rabbit Ears Pass. Five months later, Fisher still finds mementos from the students whose lives her daughter touched.
"Her whole adult life had been one of giving," Fisher said.
Even after death, Michelle did not stop giving.
The sudden nature of her death, combined with her age and good health, made her a candidate for an organ donor. Her heart, kidneys and liver were donated to four people across the country. Her pancreas went to research, and her bone and connective tissue were recovered for transplant.
"She gave the ultimate gift to people. What more can you do for a person than offer them life?" Fisher said.
Michelle's heart was given to a 54-year-old man from Idaho. A single father of three, the man had been suffering from valvular cardiomyopathy and had waited six months for a transplant. According to a letter her family received from the Donor Alliance, he is doing well.
A diabetic 46-year-old woman from New Mexico, who had been waiting for a kidney for two years, received Michelle's left kidney. Seven years ago, the woman had to quit her job as a cashier because of her illness, but thanks to the transplant, she no longer requires dialysis.
A 68-year-old retired schoolteacher from Colorado received Michelle's right kidney. The woman, who has two children and one grandchild, had polycystic kidney disease and had been waiting for a transplant for two years. The woman is doing very well, has an excellent outlook on life and a wonderful sense of humor, the Donor Alliance noted in the letter.
Michelle's liver went to a 59-year-old Maryland woman suffering from a chronic degenerative disease. The woman has three children and seven grandchildren and enjoys motorcycle riding, bowling and playing golf.
The gift of life
One organ donor has the capability to save or enhance up to eight lives, said Nikki Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Donor Alliance.
Nationally, more than 80,000 people are on the waiting list for organ donations. The Donor Alliance, a nonprofit agency in Colorado and Wyoming, has close to 1,400 people on its regional waiting list.
In 2002, 6,185 organ donors across the country provided more than 18,000 transplants. The Donor Alliance had 87 organ donors that year with 284 transplants performed.
Nationwide, more people are waiting for kidneys than any other organ. The Donor Alliance has 668 people on its waiting list, and the 55,877 people listed on the national registry make up more than half of all of those waiting for organs.
Livers are the next most needed organ. The national waiting list has 17,000 people, and the Donor Alliance list has 513 people awaiting liver transplants.
"When you think about life without a liver, you are not going to live very long," Wheeler said. "If you are actually on the list, you are in pretty bad shape. You are going to die without a transplant."
Organ donors can provide much more than kidneys or livers. They also can donate a heart, lungs, pancreas and small intestines. Bone, corneas, skin veins, heart valves, tendons and ligaments also can be donated.
However, deceased donors are difficult to find. Not only must people agree in life to become organ donors, but in their passing they must be pronounced brain dead. One in 10 deaths are a result of brain damage, which automatically narrows the odds, Wheeler said.
However, a person does not have to die to become a donor. Living people can donate a kidney, blood, bone marrow, or a portion of their liver or lung. Those donations are most often done among family members, according to the Donor Alliance.
The question of whether to donate Michelle's organs was a clear one for Fisher. Just months before the accident, Fisher said, the two had talked about Michelle and Dennis' desire to be organ donors, a conversation prompted by the death of Fisher's father.
"She said, 'I just want you to know on my driver's license, I signed up to be a donor and so is Dennis,'" Fisher said. "I thought that was a pretty neat thing to have done."
For Michelle, 2003 had been a banner year. She finished her master's degree in education that spring, completed her first quilt and learned how to make dill pickles and wild blackberry jelly, Fisher said.
For seven years, Michelle had taught at Otter Creek Middle School, where teachers affectionately called her "Barney" after the purple dinosaur. She loved scuba diving, was an avid reader and taught CPR classes for the local Red Cross.
Dennis worked for his father's company, Hobby Trucking, and was an animal control officer. Baby fawns and tiny raccoons that Dennis rescued could find temporary housing with the Barnetts. So could students who passed through Michelle's classroom. Last summer, the Barnetts took in a former student who was having troubles at home.
The couple, who could not have any children of their own, were heavily involved in school projects and always tried to attend one of their niece's or nephew's sporting events.
Michelle and Dennis where headed to Craig on Aug. 4, when Dennis' tractor-trailer slid off U.S. Highway 40 on Rabbit Ears Pass.
Dennis decided to make the run to Colorado to earn a little extra money for a Florida trip the two were planning. Both dearly loved Colorado, Fisher said.
Dennis died in the crash. Michelle was taken first to Yampa Valley Medical Center and then flown to Denver Health Medical Center, where she was taken off a respirator and died a day later.
By the time Fisher found out about the accident, Dennis already was dead, and Michelle was in critical condition. From the very first phone call with the doctors, Fisher made sure the doctors knew Michelle was an organ donor.
"She wanted to be an organ donor. That is the way she wanted to be treated," Fisher said.
When Fisher arrived in Denver the next day, Michelle had been pronounced brain dead and did not respond to any of the doctor's tests.
Family members had a chance to say their final goodbyes, the respirator was pulled, and the organ donation process began, Fisher said.
A few weeks later, after Michelle and Dennis' funerals, the family received a letter from the Donor Alliance telling them where Michelle's organs had gone.
"I had a good cry over it. It was a good feeling. It was really something Michelle felt strongly about," Fisher said.
And just as Michelle gave after her death, she will continue to teach, as well. The letter from the Donor Alliance will be incorporated in the eighth-grade health class at her middle school, Fisher said, an important lesson for those close to driving age.
Making the choice
Regardless of age, race or medical history, everyone has the potential to be an organ or tissue donor, according to the Donor Alliance. Potential donors are evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine their suitability.
"You shouldn't rule yourself out," Wheeler said.
But simply signing up is not enough, Wheeler said. Donors also should inform family and friends of their wishes. Families also can decide to donate organs at the time of a loved one's death.
Fisher stressed the importance of people making known their feelings about organ donation.
"I don't think parents should be afraid to have their children be organ donors. Children shouldn't be afraid to tell their parents they are organ donors," she said. "What more could you give mankind?"
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