Annette Joe holds a photo of her daughter, Kristen, who died of an asthma attack. Her family donated her organs and tissue. She was one of several donors honored by Gift of Life over the weekend. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
From classmates to co-workers, throughout Kristen Joe’s life, people could never say enough about her generosity and kindness, family members said.
“She was beautiful inside and out,” her mother, Annette Joe, said. “People were always saying about how kind and helpful she was.”
Even when she died of an asthma attack last year at age 26, she kept giving. Her family donated her organs.
“The year before she passed she said, ‘Mom, I want to be a donor,’ ” Annette Joe said.
“She hadn’t gone to the Secretary of State and done it, but I didn’t have any hesitation to agree for her organs to be donated because I knew that was her desire.”
Gift of Life Michigan and Michigan Eye-Bank received her heart, liver, both kidneys, both corneas and other tissue.
The organizations held their 21st annual gathering Oct. 13 in Bath, Mich., to recognize 400 donor family members and honor the more than 250 donors. In Michigan, 3,100 people are on a waiting list for a transplant, according to Gift of Life.
“... It allows us to recognize the families and hopefully help them find comfort in letting them know that they helped someone,” said Tim Makinen, director of Gift of Life.
“Many times, donor families never meet the recipients, so in that respect, it’s truly a selfless act.”
“It was both sad and happy to see how the transplant helped so many people,” Annette Joe said.
“We had a lot of recipients there who said what organs they received and how it changed their lives.”
Hundreds at the gathering heard from a 9-year-old who received corneas and a 54-year-old heart recipient.
Lily Schlafhauser of Troy explained how she’s able to read thanks to the cornea transplants. David Rozelle of Kalamazoo, who received a heart transplant 12 years ago, told how grateful he was to be able to compete in a 5K run.
The stories touched Eric and Sandi Gerwin of Wixom, who lost their newborn daughter Paige after 14 hours to anencephaly, a condition that affects development of the brain. .
“How many people can say that they’ve been held, loved us and cared for their entire life?” Eric Gerwin said.
“For us, every gift of every life, even the smallest and shortest, can be the most meaningful.”
Thursday night, in the same hospital where the Gerwins made the decision to donate Paige’s liver cells, they welcomed their third child.
The two have become regulars around some Metro Detroit hospitals as volunteers who speak to families considering organ donations.
The number of people registering as organ donors has increased over the past few years to 3.3 million, or roughly 43 percent the state’s adult population. Nationally, that figure is46 percent, Makinen said.
“We have seen tremendous growth in the past 12 years to really close that gap and help others, but there’s definitely work to go,” Makinen said.
Organ donations continue to rise nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Last year, 28,051 people received organ transplants, a number that has more than doubled over the past 25 years. The upward swing in donations still hasn’t met the need for organs, though, HHS reports.
Each day, an average of 79 people receive organ transplants while 18 die waiting.
“You never know what could happen to us tomorrow or what could save or prolong someone else’s life with the body parts that you’re not going to use,” Gerwin said.