Published on Monday, November 27, 2017
Media Contact: Ruth Cummins
The University of Mississippi Medical Center’s annual Wall of Heroes organ donor commemoration is, in Gina Smith’s words, one of her “Carmen events.”
It’s among the ways the Louisville resident honors and celebrates her daughter Carmen, who in 2015 died after suffering a traumatic brain injury right before she would have turned 13.
Smith and her husband Marty donated Carmen’s organs. Her heart went to a little girl in New York; her remaining organs, to mothers or grandmothers living in Mississippi. “This will be our third Christmas without her,” Gina Smith said.
Carmen’s story, and those of other adult and child donors, are represented by the photos on the Wall of Heroes located at UMMC’s Adult Hospital and Batson Children’s Hospital. A collaborative effort of UMMC, the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency and the Mississippi Lions Eye Bank, the memorial displays are a tribute to honor patients who gave the final gift of organ, eye or tissue donation.
Families who in the midst of traumatic grief made the decision to donate attended this year’s Wall of Heroes ceremonies – one for adults, and one for kids – Nov. 17 at the Medical Center.
The need for organ donation is great. As of mid-November, 219 organs have been transplanted in 2017 after being donated overall by 67 Mississippians, said Chuck Stinson, MORA’s director of marketing and media relations. Another 1,300-plus residents await a transplant, and the national waiting list is more than 116,000.
Nationally, an average 22 people die each day while waiting for an organ, and a new person is added to the national transplant waiting list every 10 minutes. One organ donor can save eight lives, and one tissue and eye donor can improve the lives of 50 or more.
If a 20-year-old in kidney failure receives a new organ, “that’s an additional 40 years of life,” said Dr. Felicitas Koller, assistant professor of transplant surgery. “That’s such a huge impact … To see so many more birthdays, to fall in love, to get married.”
A transplant “is every bit as miraculous as the return of spring, and that’s because of what you family members did, and what your friends did,” Koller told those at the Wall of Heroes event. “Their gift is like a ripple. It spreads so far.”
Carmen was in Jackson competing in the All-American Youth Barrel Race, the biggest of its kind in the nation. “That night, we went to check on her horses,” Gina Smith said. “It was late, and she and her friends were on one of the utility vehicles called a side-by-side.”
The kids weren’t going fast or being reckless, Smith said, but when a child not on the vehicle threw a water balloon toward Carmen, it missed. Carmen leaned over the vehicle’s rail to yell “You missed!” and fell off, hitting her head on the concrete floor.
“They screamed for me,” said Smith, who was only about 150 feet away. “She ran to me, and I ran to her. She jumped in my arms, and asked me to let her go to bed. I said, ‘No, you have to go to the hospital.’”
At UMMC’s Pediatric Emergency Department, Carmen was diagnosed with a small skull fracture, concussion, and small brain bleed. She was admitted for overnight observation. “They put us in the ICU, and the next day she was doing pretty well. She wasn’t normal, but she knew her birthday and her name,” Smith said.
Carmen Smith loved her dog Sasha, a toy long-haired chihuahua. (Photo courtesy of Gina Smith.)
Just as Carmen was to be moved to a regular room, she had a seizure, then another. “She never woke up,” Smith said.
After the family was told that Carmen’s brain stem had died, Smith said, she was gently approached by representatives of MORA. “I never hesitated,” Smith said of donating her child’s organs.
Carmen, even as a child, and her mom had already had “the talk.”
“Carmen had seen the heart on my driver’s license, and she asked me what it meant,” Smith said of a time before Carmen’s accident. “We had a conversation about it. Never in a million years did I think I’d be having to donate my child’s organs, but I knew she knew what it meant, even though I couldn’t talk to her about it in the hospital.”
“The loss of a child is hard to comprehend,” said MORA CEO Kevin Stump. “So when a family makes the decision to save and help others during such an extremely trying time, it’s a powerful testament about that family and the loved one they honor through the incredibly selfless act of donation.”
When the family at first thought they’d be looking at long-term rehabilitation for Carmen, friends organized a fundraiser to help pay medical expenses. “There was money left over, and we formed the Ride for Carmen organization,” said Smith, an assistant principal at Ackerman Elementary. She and Marty also are parents to Tyler, 18, a senior at Choctaw County High.
“We give academic and rodeo scholarships to Choctaw County High and the schools in Winston County, and we give rodeo scholarships to Mid South Little Britches Rodeo and the Mississippi High School Rodeo Association.”
And, they promote organ donation. “We have a flag that flies at every Little Britches rodeo in memory of Carmen Smith,” her mom said. “We promote traumatic brain awareness. We try to offer financial support to several people in the rodeo community who have been hurt and suffered a concussion or brain injury.
“We don’t have tons of money, but it goes either to a scholarship or to help others, and to spread the word on the need for organ donors.”
Smith said she’s touched by MORA’s outreach. “The whole ride thing, and promoting organ donation … those are my Carmen events,” she said. “I’ve made friends with other mamas in the same situation. My life has completely changed. I try my best to look at the positives. I’m thankful for the people who took care of my baby during this.
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