If facing end-stage organ failure, a kidney, pancreas, liver, lung, intestine or heart transplant will help you embrace life again.
It’s been 20 years since she lost her sister. And now nurse Gwenn Christianson, senior partner with the Indiana Poison Center at IU Health Methodist Hospital talks about her family’s decision to give the gift of life.
“I should warn you. This isn’t a new story. It happened 20 years ago, but I think it’s as pertinent now as it was back then.”
Those were Gwenn Christianson’s introductory words before she began telling a story that in fact is as familiar to her today as it was two decades ago. It’s the story of a family’s choice. A choice made during one of the most difficult times in their lives.
Christianson’s mother sat by the hospital bed singing quietly to her youngest daughter she had carried for nine months and watched grow up and have children of her own. Those three children came in and out of the hospital room, confused but wanting to see their mom for what might be one last time. Christianson and her two brothers took turns holding their sister’s hand.
It is a day Christianson will never forget. It was April 7, 1999, the day her “baby” sister – 18 months younger – passed. Becki Spanenberg-Flores was 35.
“She went into the hospital on a Tuesday night with an asthma attack,” said Christianson. “ She was in ICU but was doing well. I talked to her husband Thursday morning and they were planning to move her to a floor. Then four hours later I got a call that she was on the ventilator and was having problems. I left work and drove to the hospital. I had been sitting at my desk answering phones and I can remember the desk I was sitting in. It’s all so clear, so familiar.”
It was touch and go for a bit but then Becki was stable, holding her own, as they say.
But on Friday, Christianson was back at that desk at the Indiana Poison Control Center at IU Health Methodist Hospital where she has worked for the past 31 years. Her phone rang again. It was her brother-in-law, Becki’s husband.
The news was grim. The family again huddled at the hospital.
“They were working on her, resuscitating her. We didn’t know it at the time but they had been working on her for a long time. They got her back. She was sedated. We could talk to her and hold her hand,” said Christianson. As she talks she dabs at tears.
Becki’s condition remained the same over the weekend.
“On Monday morning they did an MRI and on Monday evening the neurologist told us she was brain dead. We were all there – the whole family. There were screams. There were lots of tears,” said Christianson.
What seemed like a short lifetime of sharing the title “sisters” floods over Christianson. Both girls were born in Louisville, KY. – the children of Richard and Judie Spanenberg. They have two brothers William and James. Richard Spaneberg was a mechanical engineer – a job that took his family to several new locations they called “home” – to Clarksville, TN., La Cross, WI., and near Memphis, TN. When Christianson was 14 and her sister was 13 the family settled in Indiana.
Their mom was an ER nurse and their dad had been a member of the United States Air Force Band. The family grew up listening to band music, attending parades, and enjoying beach vacations. Christianson remembers the girls riding bikes in the neighborhood, playing Frisbee and coddling their younger brothers.
Becki caught her dad’s interest in the pomp and circumstance of performance and in high school she joined the flag corp. After graduation she attended Purdue for a couple of years and eventually married Geno Flores. She worked for RCI
for a time - a job that transferred her to Seattle. She longed to be back in Indiana so after a short time, they returned to their home state. Becki and Geno Flores had three children.
Mostly Becki was known for her generous, loving spirit.
She went on to work for Flag Corps assisting various high schools with their color guard units. She often went above and beyond her duties – on her own time helping sew together costumes for the students and coaching performers who needed a little extra help.
She also had a soft spot for animals.
“She couldn’t resist any sad-eyed pet in need of a home. She was always rescuing animals and bringing them home, and then they stayed for the rest of their lives,” said Christianson. She started with a gray tabby kitty named “Muffy” and a yellow dog named “Cara’ and eventually acquired three more dogs and a stray cat that turned up pregnant with six kittens.
Becki was a dedicated Cub Scout leader taking a week’s vacation to attend Camp Belzer every summer with her son. At one point she carried her youngest son in a back carrier for the week. She loved to walk with her Cub Scouts in the Fourth of July Parade.
“Becki was a giver. She loved to give people presents and she would drop whatever she was doing to welcome people to her home – stretching a dinner to feed a crew, offering dry clothes after a rainstorm, or sitting for a long chat with a cup of coffee,” said Christianson.
So on that Monday when the neurologist came in and said the words “brain dead” the family gathered. In addition to Christianson and her mom – both nurses – there are several other healthcare professionals in the family. Christianson’s brother William is a hospitalist, and his wife a pharmacist.
“We knew what was right. We knew what Becki would want,” said Christianson. They asked if Becki could be tested as a candidate for organ donation. The hospital contacted the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization.
“She had asthma and was not a compliant asthma patient, but was otherwise healthy and she was only 35,” said Christianson.
April is National Donate Life Month. The US Department of Health and Human Services reports in 2018 there were 17,533 organ donors; 10,722 were deceased donors; 6,831 were living donors. As of January 2019, there were more than 113,000 people throughout the United States awaiting a transplant. Each day about 80 people receive an organ transplant. Every 10 minutes a new person is added to the waiting list. Today one person can donate up to eight lifesaving organs –heart, two lungs, liver, pancreas, two kidneys, and intestine. They can also donate bones, skin, cornea and tendons.
“Yes, it was a difficult time, but it wasn’t a difficult decision,” said Christianson, still dabbing at tears. “We were in agreement that this was the right thing to do.”
In the past 20 years Becki’s family has received letters from a grandfather in his 60s who has a new heart. They have heard from a grateful schoolteacher in her 40s who has a new kidney and a man who has a healthy liver. The family opted not to meet the recipients.
In Becki’s final resting place is a headstone with the words: “Wife, Mother, Giver.” And in the upper left hand corner is a bronze medallion of two hands holding a heart. It reads: “Gift of Life Donor.” The message and the memory will live forever in the hearts of her family and friends.
“It’s enough to know that Becki’s giving spirit lives on. To be able to pause in the middle of one of the absolute worst moments of our lives and think about how this tragedy can help others, was enough,” said Christianson. “We knew it would not make her death any better, but we could at least bring some goodness out of something so bad and give someone else a gift of life.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email firstname.lastname@example.org.