Robyn Caldwell was interviewed by CKF Program Manager, CC Cunningham, to share her story as a donor family member. CC and Robyn were first introduced through CKF’s recent partnership with Student Organ Donation Advocates (SODA), for which Robyn is the Programming Intern.
I’m originally from Massachusetts, but I’m currently living in a small town, named Wynantskill, right outside of Troy, New York. Right now, I’m attending Hudson Valley Community College for my associates degree in human services. I want to attend Lesley University in Boston next to get my bachelor’s degree in human services and, hopefully, get a job as a Family Services Coordinator with New England Donor Services. I definitely want to work with donor families—I come from a donor family: my mom passed away five years ago and became an organ donor. I didn’t have a clue about organ donation before that happened and the whole experience really opened my eyes to it all.
It all started when my mom and my stepdad were out of town, in New Hampshire, for a seafood festival. They had taken their motorcycle and were on their way home when the front tire suddenly hit a nail and popped. My mom was riding on the back and my stepdad was driving. She was thrown off and the severity of her injuries caused her to go into traumatic arrest. My stepdad’s injuries weren’t that bad—he only walked away with a concussion—but he was still taken by ambulance to the closest hospital. My mom, on the other hand, had to be flown to the nearest trauma center, which was in Boston. Unfortunately, her brain had been without oxygen for too long and she was pronounced braindead by the time she got there.
I was just relaxing at home when my sister called and told me, “Mom was in an accident. I don’t have any other details. I’m getting picked up from work right now. I’ll let you know when I find out more.” The whole time, I was just thinking, “Okay, this can’t be that bad. Whatever happened, she’ll be fine.”
It ended up taking me and my sister a long time to determine where our mom was being treated. She didn’t have her driver’s license with her at the time of the accident, so she was admitted to the hospital as a “Jane Doe”, the name that hospitals give patients who are admitted without a form of identification. We were calling all these New England-area hospitals and asking if they had our mom, April Ptaszkiewicz, but we just kept getting turned away. My dad suggested we start asking for Jane Doe’s, so that’s what we did. We eventually found her at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. When we called them, they asked us how fast we could get there and told us to come that night because it wasn’t looking good. My sister was living in Massachusetts with my mom and stepdad at the time, so she was able to get to Beth Israel first. I live in New York with my dad, so it took us a few hours, but we eventually got there and joined my sister and the rest of our family members.
To be honest, it was a total whirlwind. I had never set foot in an emergency room before then, so walking into the Beth Israel ER to see my mom was surreal. When we got there, my dad and I were brought up to the SICU, the surgical intensive care unit, and that was the first time we saw her. I remember she was hooked up to all these machines, including a ventilator to help her breathe. Our family members were all there: my grandma (my mom’s mom) and some of my cousins. The accident had happened earlier that same day. My stepdad was still being treated for his concussion at the hospital in Lowell, MA, so we wanted to hold off on stopping life support until he could come and say his goodbyes.
It was during that time that we were approached by a representative from the local organ procurement organization, New England Donor Services (or NEDS, for short). They confirmed that my mom was a registered organ donor, but before they could move forward with the donation process, her next-of-kin (my stepdad) had to give them permission to proceed. We waited as long as we could for my stepdad to get there, but after two long days, her organs started to fail and we had to make a decision before it was too late for her to donate. After my stepdad determined he couldn’t make it to Beth Israel in time, it then became up to my sister and I to give our consent, which we did wholeheartedly. It wasn’t a question in our minds: our mom wanted to give to someone else in her final moments. That’s what she signed up to do when she registered as an organ donor.
My mom was 51 years old when she passed away. She spent her entire life giving back—that’s who she was. She was so bubbly and laughed all the time. She just loved being around other people. She actually ended up finding her passion as a companion for the elderly. She worked in a nursing home when my sister and I were growing up. We would go there after school sometimes and help the patients with rehab and stuff like that. She instilled in us the importance of helping others from an early age.
When we finally made the decision to end life support, we all had the chance to say our goodbyes and were there with her when it happened. As soon as the monitor flatlined, it became a race against time for the surgeons to get my mom to the operating room to donate her organs while they’re still viable. In the end, NEDS was able to tell us what she donated and how many people she helped: she donated one of her kidneys, both of her corneas, skin tissue, and bone tissue. As a result, my mom helped 70 people through her donations.
About a year after our mom’s passing, we received a letter from one of her bone tissue recipients, who lives in Colorado. She was unable to walk until she received bone tissue from our mom that was used to rebuild her ACL. She’s also getting married soon and she told us it’s because of our mom that she can now walk down the aisle on her wedding day. It was truly amazing to read that letter. At first, my sister and I had a hard time replying and it took us a while to respond—just dealing with everything…it was a lot. However, we did end up sending a letter back, telling her all about our mom, the whole situation, and how happy we are that she was able to benefit from it.
As I mentioned, that first year after my mom passed away was rough. It affected me and my sister differently: my sister was living with her in MA when she passed, so she ended up having to move in with my dad and me in NY. Her whole life was uprooted and her day-to-day completely changed, whereas mine really didn’t. I was still extremely sad. It would hit me out of nowhere. I’d remember she’s not there when I wanted to call or talk to her. That was really hard for me to get used to.
I registered as an organ donor not long after my mom passed away. We never really talked about it much, so I wasn’t that familiar with it before she did. To. be honest, I was always under the impression that the hospital wouldn’t try to save you if you were registered. I can tell you right now, that is not at all what happens. After watching my mom go through the whole donation process, I saw firsthand how it all works. Nobody knew she was a registered organ donor when she got to the hospital—the hospital didn’t even know who she was! She was taken into surgery as soon as she got to the hospital after her accident. They did everything they could to save her. That is their first obligation as a hospital: to protect the health of the patient. It was only after my mom was pronounced braindead that NEDS came in and discussed the possibility of organ donation with us.
I really didn’t get involved with organ donation until about three years ago, when NEDS contacted us about participating in their annual Blue and Green Walk. They were hosting the walk in Boston for the first time, so we attended. Learning about everyone’s stories and hearing people talk about their experiences with organ donation…it impacted me instantly. From there, my passion only continued to grow, knowing that I could help other people and being able to turn all of this grief into something positive. I started going to school for it. I formed a team with NEDS for the Blue and Green Walk and we now participate each year. My mom absolutely loved animals: she had a bunch of chickens in her backyard (not to eat—they were pets), so our team name is “April’s Chicks”, because chickens were her favorite. I started volunteering with NEDS and the Center for Donation and Transplant in Albany. I’ve gotten involved with SODA as their Programming Intern. The things I post on social media are all about promoting organ donation awareness. Just the other day, I posted something about organ donation and my friend texted me saying, “Okay, I’m registered!”
It’s amazing to see firsthand how something so wonderful can come out of something so tragic. The whole experience has taught me just how important organ donation really is. I don’t think a lot of people realize how many people there are whose lives totally depend on receiving an organ or tissue transplant—that’s the thing, too: a tissue transplant can completely change someone’s life. Not many people understand that. This is going to sound so cliché but, my mom’s passing taught me how short life really is and that we only have one life. We can use it to benefit others long after we’re gone. The things I’ve learned about organ donation have made me see my mom’s passing in a completely new light because, in a way, she still lives on: through the gifts she has given others by being an organ donor.