In some ways, Lauren Pruitt is still alive.
In 2005, three months before the car accident that caused her death, the 16-year-old Oxford High student got her driver’s license, accompanied by her mother, Susan. When Lauren was asked if she wanted to be an organ donor — standard procedure when seeking a driver’s license — she glanced at her mother for approval.
“That moment became so significant in all our lives. I see it in my mind today, when she turned her head and looked at me,” Susan said. “She nodded, and said ‘I’ll be an organ donor.’”
The accident resulted in severe injuries to Lauren’s head, sustained when the car she was driving went off the road and spun into some trees on Friendship Road, just a few miles from her home in Oxford. Doctors told her parents that Lauren was brain dead. Susan lay down on a pew in the hospital chapel to process what was happening. She said she felt like a voice spoke to her.
“It said, ‘You have to do something now. You can’t wait.’ I knew the message was for us to let her go, let them get a chance to harvest some organs to save somebody else, because that was what she wanted,” Susan said.
Tim, her father, said that he supported the decision, though it wasn’t easy.
“I know her body’s here, but her soul is gone,” Tim said. “It’s just, why not let somebody have a life, some extra time?”
Lauren’s liver went to someone immediately, Susan said. Both of her kidneys, her pancreas and her eyes went to others later, though Lauren’s parents don’t know who. Susan said they’re fine not knowing.
“We got a flower at her funeral, and we kept the card for a long time. It was written like several cards taped together. We’re pretty sure it’s from the family of somebody who she saved,” Susan said.
That might have been the family’s only organ donation story, but in 2012, Tim’s breathing became labored, so much that he and Susan, an experienced nurse, thought he was having a heart attack. Doctors said the problem was in his lungs, not his heart; he had pulmonary artery hypertension, what Susan called PAH. Tim’s blood wasn’t getting enough oxygen to the rest of his body.
His condition worsened over the next five years. He breathed oxygen from containers through a mask; when he and Susan drove to Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., in May 2017, they packed 22 oxygen cans into Susan’s car for the 10-hour drive. They met with a specialist at the hospital, who decided that Tim needed new lungs. He went on a transplant wait list on a Friday, and by that Sunday, Mother’s Day, he was in surgery. Susan said there are criteria that determine someone’s place on the transplant wait list, and “evidently his score was really high,” she said.
Tim, 63, said the transplant was like coming full circle, in a way, and that he’s feeling well. He’s back to work and can mow the yard again, something Susan said he takes pride in. He’s thought about the philosophical questions that come from organ donation, but he said they don’t weigh on his mind.
“I know somebody had to die for me to have lungs,” he said. “A life had to go for a life to be saved.”
Susan said that she wanted people to understand how important organ donation is for families. She acknowledged that it’s not an easy subject to talk about, but she wants more people to discuss it with their loved ones, and if they decide to be organ donors, to make their intent clear.
“Not just signing the card, but making your wishes clear to your loved ones is the most important thing,” she said. “As far as what happens to you after you die, your organs, they’re to dust. So you might as well help somebody. Just make sure that somebody that you trust knows those wishes.”