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“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” – The Dalai Lama
I’ve always thought of myself as a kind person. But in my fourth decade of life, I learned what true kindness is. A brain surgeon had just asked me if I would give my daughter’s vital organs to strangers. Maya, 19, had been declared brain dead and doctors had signed her death certificate. They were preparing to remove the machines keeping her heart pumping and her lungs breathing.
I was frozen with grief, paralyzed by anguish I thought I would never outlive. But I heard myself say “Yes!” to the doctor’s request.
In that moment I made a decision that would change my life forever, and radically alter the lives of countless others. Four people’s lives were saved, two people had their sight restored, and dozens benefitted from Maya’s bone and skin tissues which were processed and stored. Through the miracle of donation and transplantation, families were kept whole, and people on the verge of death found new life and strength.
Here are the lessons I carry with me, ones I remind myself of often:
1. Help others at every opportunity. When you are down or hurting, helping others helps you just as much. Generosity is healing and helps you overcome challenges, including grief or depression. It takes you away from your troubles and increases your kindness quotient.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. I used to fume over parking spaces, late bills, missed calls, rude people, you name it. Now, I know they are a normal part of life for everyone, including me. I don’t take it personally. Keep a sense of perspective. Ask yourself, “Will this matter in five years, or even tomorrow?”
3. Share your love. It’s a funny thing about love. Giving it away makes it grow. You’ll never diminish love by sharing it. Love is infinite. It cannot be divided. Only multiplied. So be generous with hugs, kind words, praise, and encouragement. Everyone wins!
4. Be grateful for everything. Take nothing for granted. Life can change – or end – in a moment. Every breath, every sunbeam, every smile is a priceless gift. Keep a gratitude journal and write in it each night – at least three things you are grateful for. It will change your life, I promise.
5. Believe in life. When Maya died, it would have been so easy to give up. But because I chose radical generosity in a moment of crisis, hope was reborn. I met the man who received my daughter’s heart, and heard it beating in his chest. With trust and faith, anything can be overcome. Believe in something greater than yourself!
April is National Donate Life Month. Become an organ donor. Share your decision with your family and friends. Visit for more information.
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Eleanor Vincent’s debut memoir, Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story, poignantly describes the death of her 19-year-old daughter in a horse riding accident and the subsequent donation of Maya’s organs to strangers in need. Eleanor’s meeting with the man who received Maya’s heart, and their ensuing friendship, is described in her memoir. The book is a New York Times e-book bestseller and was nominated for the Independent Publisher of the Year award. Her poetry and essays have been published in several collections, including Creative Nonfiction’s anthology, At the End of Life, and This I Believe: On Motherhood.
She holds an MFA from Mills College in Creative Nonfiction and has taught there as a visiting writer. She is a member of the Author’s Guild and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Eleanor encourages others to tap their innate resilience by freeing the creator within. Her work inspiring other donor families was recognized with a community service award from the California Transplant Donor Network.

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This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. Eleanor – Thank you for sharing – as father of 2 kids and grandfather to 3 – I have wondered about losing any of them and what I might do, how I might react, what would play out in those times – it is just to dark for me to think about. But, you have helped me fill in my reserve of strength for the most horrible to the mundane – thank you for caring. Bob

    1. Bob – losing anyone we love is so difficult. Children and grandchildren are precious beyond words, so it is almost impossible to contemplate. Good for you for giving it some consideration. Building our “spiritual muscles” for challenging times is vital. I’m so pleased if my offering helps in any way. Blessings to you!

  2. Ellie – Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Life can be difficult and filling it with love and gratitude helps a bunch.

  3. Eleanor, having read your memoir, I find the wisdom and gracious extension of gifts to others at the end of Maya’s life a remarkable act. My husband and I are organ donors, and we hope others realize the importance of becoming a donor. Thanks for your post.

  4. Thank you for you for your touching story, Eleanor. It brings to mind the words of Joy of Healing founder and author of The Truth of Life From the World of Love and Spirit, Tamara Overlee, “Helping others to help ourselves and helping ourselves to help others.”
    What a wonderful gift you gave to help so many!

  5. Ten years ago, I had to make the same decision regarding my precious 17-year-old son, Jonathan, who died suddenly of a heart attack. His major organs could not be donated, but his corneas, bone and tissues were. I was informed that one of his corneas went to a young man in Flint, MI, and that his donations went to about 60 people. My son looked natural in his casket, and I know he would have been happy to help others in this way. Several people at his funeral decided to become donors themselves. My family is aware of my wish to donate my organs. We all must help where we can.

  6. Eleanor – thanks for sharing this special story. This is a strong reminder to folks to have your donor card on file or on your drivers license and to make sure your family knows of your desire to help others. Such a gift to know the heart recipient.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Virginia. It is so important to have this conversation with our loved ones, and to share our decision with others. It was truly a gift getting to know Fernando and his family – my books tells the full story of our friendship. I appreciate you reading my essay.

  7. You are a blessed soul! Thank you for the gifts of life thanks to a decision many are not able to make. You’ve inspired me to inform my family to offer everything that can be used.

  8. Dear Ellie
    The body, the physical heart shared
    The essence of her true heart
    Always and forever yours
    Lots of love and hugs

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