Tucson resident Barbara Lacoursiere understands how far the science of organ donation has come, and how its acceptance has grown over the past 60 years. And she knows exactly what a precious gift it is to donate.
Her influence goes back to the early 1950s when her brother Freddie lost his eyesight from diabetes. “He became what they call a ‘guinea pig’ at the Eye Institute of Minnesota, and they ended up removing his eyes during an experimental procedure,” she said. “When he came home, he had glass eyes in his pockets and I was so mad at him. He said ‘Barbara, it’s ok. I know what the blue sky looks like. I know what the color red looks like. Think of all those people who have never seen anything. Maybe someday what I did will help others.’”
In 1958, her brother Jerome, who also suffered from diabetes, needed a kidney transplant. “The Mayo Clinic in Rochester had only done three kidney transplants at that time. My brother was too sick for them to help him. It was absolutely devastating for me. I had to go home and tell my mother the news. Jerome passed away three months and three days later,” she said.
Determined to put the pain behind her, Lacoursiere didn’t think about organ donation much – until a conversation with another brother, Michael, at a family reunion 16 years ago. Michael also had diabetes. “I knew he wasn’t well. I asked him what was really going on. He said, ‘I need a kidney.’ I looked at him and said ‘I know they’ve come a long way – so just get one.’ And he looked back at me and said, ‘You know, Barbara, you don’t just get them at Ace Hardware. Most everybody has two kidneys, and you only need one to live a healthy life.’ I joked, ‘You can have one of mine.’” But in reality, she wasn’t joking.
At first, doctors were hesitant to test her to see if she was a match since she was over age 55. She was 62, but she was healthy and strong. She convinced them to test her. Sure enough, she was a match, and donated a kidney to her brother in 2001. Michael eventually passed away last August. “He lived 10 years and 10 months with our kidney,” she said tearfully.
These days, Lacoursiere spends her time volunteering for the Donor Network of Arizona – educating others about the life-saving and life-changing decision they make when they decide to become an organ, tissue and cornea donor. Lacoursiere was outside of the TMC Cafeteria in front of the Arizona Donor Quilt with TMC Clinical Educator Sue Bentley and her team – educating anyone who would listen, and signing up people who committed to saving and improving lives…long after they pass on.
The Arizona Donor Quilt is one of 18 currently in the state. “All of the squares were donated by the families of donors in honor of their loved one,” explained Kristi Clor, Donor Network of Arizona Hospital Donor Program Coordinator. Each square is a remarkable tribute to a life that was lost but continued to live on.
One of the squares is for little J.D. Hakes, who was only 2 years old; another for 17-year-old Courtney Wagner.
For the families, creating a square is often therapeutic. For those passing by, it’s a way to see the people who have made a difference. “Instead of ‘my loved one passed away,’ it changes that last chapter of their life, and makes it ‘my loved one passed away but they saved some other people,’” said Clor.