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In Midst of Tragedy, Family Gives Life

Grieving mother finds comfort in donating her son’s organs

Six years ago, after her son Daniel’s death, Pedernales Electric Cooperative member Carmen Polhemus of Wimberley made the decision to help save others’ lives by donating three of his vital organs (kidneys, liver and pancreas) through the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance (TOSA).

In this remarkable saga, Carmen paints a picture of hope and inspiration in the darkest of times. Here is her story, in italics, interspersed with brief narration throughout:

“Daniel Polhemus was a friend’s friend. He was a talented athlete and had many close pals but was also able to relate to a wide variety of people, young and old. He did not judge people based on color, social status or financial success. He was protective of his family, friends and anyone else he thought was in need. He was incredibly loyal and loved by many. ‘I’ve got your back,’ was something that he commonly said. He graduated high school in May 2004 and began working and living in Austin with eventual plans to begin his college career at Austin Community College. In January 2005, Daniel was in a single-car accident and suffered severe head trauma. He lived for about a week in intensive care until it was realized there was no hope. He passed February 5, 2005, when he was 19 years old.”

Losing a child is any parent’s worst nightmare. Though Carmen, her husband, Paul, and their family suffered greatly, the decision to donate some of Daniel’s organs came about spontaneously.

“When we were discussing the options we had, which were very few and none that would lead to a long life for Daniel, I made the comment that I only wanted to be in the room when the machines were turned off. The response was: ‘Then you’re not interested in being a donor family?’ ”

The realization that they could donate Daniel’s organs, Carmen said, was the only encouraging news the family had received.

“I would describe it as someone opening a window to let in sunshine on a dark day. We immediately agreed with the relief that Daniel’s life could be shared.”

The family also took solice in knowing that Daniel would have supported the decision.

“We knew what his choice would be just because of the way he lived. This was the ultimate ‘got your back.’ What could be more? This is the gift of life.”

Of the almost 2.5 million people who die in the U.S. every year, less than 3 percent are eligible to be organ donors. Hence, any organ donation is significant, and this story is particularly unique in that Daniel’s pancreas was donated to UCLA for diabetes research.

“Apparently the pancreas is a fragile organ to donate, and it is not common that it can be a successful donation. While they are not trying to cure diabetes, they are enhancing the healthy life of the diabetic person and seeking to remove them from being insulin dependent. This is done by injecting cells from a healthy pancreas.”

The pancreas donation carried with it an answered prayer—although the ultimate answer, the family learned, was that Daniel’s donation was helping others heal.

“Our family physician prayed with us on Wednesday night of Daniel’s hospitalization that Daniel could heal ‘cell by cell.’ Thursday, when we learned there was no hope for Daniel to live, the TOSA representative offered the UCLA research as an option for Daniel’s pancreas. It took weeks for me to realize that Daniel is healing cell by cell, only not in the way we prayed. We didn’t get to have Daniel heal, but Daniel is healing [others]. Donation has been such a part of our lives, and while we don’t know exactly what God’s plan is, we feel like this is part of it. Donation has kept him alive for us. There’s not any reason to waste a life.”

There is great comfort in being a donor family.

“It makes sense out of something so senseless.”

While the Polhemus family has not met any recipients of Daniel’s organs, the family is gaining a deeper understanding of the effect of the donations by maintaining contact with organ recipients in general. For example, at a TOSA meeting, the family met a woman who had received a kidney.

“We sat across from a young mother, and she had been a recipient of a kidney. Just watching her interact with her children was [very meaningful]. She’s watched them play sports, grow up and go to college. It was the first time that Paul and I understood that someone’s life was really able to go on. It took some time to understand the recipient side because you’re so tied into your grief. Watching this young mom’s face and her laughter—it made Daniel alive for us. And that’s just a happy way to think. Because [he lived], someone else is still living. And donation doesn’t end with signing the paper. TOSA stays with you, and they have just been incredible in terms of the support they’ve given us over the past five years. They are not cold. They are warm, supportive and family centered.”

The family has been told that its actions were generous and brave, but Carmen said choosing organ donation was the easiest decision to make.

“Instead of losing him, we were able to share him, and that has made a big difference. There is one point that is important to emphasize, if possible. Donors and donor families aren’t saints. Daniel was a regular teenager, making right and wrong choices like all teenagers. We are a typical family who never thought of a donation decision for one of our children because parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children. But tragedy happens. Organ donation was the only hopeful alternative in the saddest time of our lives.”

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Ashley Clary is field editor for Texas Co-op Power.