Dance Shines Light on Need for Organ Donation

By Jason Hidalgo
Reprint courtesy of Reno Gazette-Journal

April 25, 2000

   Anne Norris watches the closing moments of last year’s performance of the theatrical piece, “Dancing in the light,” and sees an image of her 13-year old daughter, Kristen.  Enveloped by a warm ray of light, Kristen’s long golden hair shimmers as it twirls with each graceful movement of her body, marking the culmination her youthful dreams.

  The music stops, the crowd applauds and Norris is in tears.

  On April 24, three years before the tribute performance Norris watched, Kristen died from anaphylaxis, the victim of an allergic reaction to something she consumed a few days earlier.

  “She had a history of allergy to nuts,” Norris said.  “She ordered something she normally had and they just didn’t happen to clean the blender well enough this time.”

Kristen only took two sips of the drink before noticing a strange taste.  She slipped into a coma later that evening.  After being pronounced brain dead, Kristen became an organ donor.

  “It was something we talked about before,” Norris said.  “She said that if she ever died, then they can take whatever they want because she wasn’t going to need it anymore.  Of course, we never thought this would happen.”

  Kristen’s contribution made an immediate impact, Norris said, helping three people who desperately needed organ transplants – one of whom was an 8-year child.

  “One thing that kept (me and my husband) going the first year (after Kristen’s death), Norris said,  “was knowing that Kristen’s organs saved this boy.”

  April is National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Month.  

  Spanish Springs resident Joe Stivers, 54, a heart transplant recipient, says the impact organ donation has had on his life is simply immeasurable.  

  “I would have never seen my son get married,” Stivers said.  “And I would have never seen my grandchildren be born.”

  The impact of organ donation becomes even greater for younger people.

  Christine Grahm, 20, a University of Nevada, Reno student, received her organ transplant when she was only 4.

  “I wouldn’t have experienced anything,” Grahm said.

  About 57 people receive an organ transplant each day. Another 13 people die daily, however, because not enough organs are available.

  There were 69,057 patients on the United Network for Organ Sharing’s waiting list as of April 15 of this year.  Kidneys top the list for organs need at 44,885, followed by livers at 15,120.

  The national average for organ donation is about 50 percent, said Sandi Smith, regional supervisor for Sierra Eye and Tissue donor Services.  Northern Nevada’s average is about 80 to 85 percent.

  “Northern Nevada is a really tight-knit and caring community,” Smith said.  “(Those figures) really speak highly of us.”

For the last three years, “Dancing in the Light” has served as the finale for the “Shining Stars” benefit concerts.

  Proceeds from the concert benefit programs for children in the arts, which includes master classes featuring renowned professionals in the art world.  One of the recent guest teachers, for example, was dancer Tony Coppola.

  “Master classes are really expensive,” Norris said. “Normally, you have to go to San Francisco or Manhattan and pay the teacher plus room and board.  Students can take our classes for free.”

Norris, who has a background in the visual and performing arts, also produces the concert as a way to remember Kristen, who had an affinity for the arts, including dancing, acting, singing, and writing.

  “It’s a good way for people t get to know how Kristen was and what she wanted to do,” said Roseanna Peek, 17, one of the piece’s performers.

  The concert is also a way to positively influence the lives of donor families and at the same time raise awareness for organ donation.

  “It’s really emotional,” said 16 year-old Amanda Sharkey, another performer and Roseanne’s best friend.  “I know we can touch those who loved (Kristen) and those who also lost a loved one.”

  “Art is healing,” Norris added.  “It hold up a mirror and gives you something to think about.  Great art changes people.”

  Norris’ group recently performed at the California Transplant Donor Network’s Donor Family Recognition Ceremony.  They also have been invited to the National Kidney Foundation’s National Donor Recognition Ceremony, which is held in conjunction with the United States Transplant Games on June 22 this year.

  Meeting donor families can be a very powerful moment for both sides, Norris said, particularly those directly involved in the organ donation of a loved one.

  “It’s like you suddenly have an extended family,” Norris said.  “You can’t even comprehend the emotion everyone goes through.”

  Despite her tragic experience, not a trace of bitterness can be found in Norris’ voice as she retraces the events that led to her daughter’s death.

  She describes the efforts of the paramedics and doctors who worked on her daughter as “very heroic”.

  “The community really rallied around us,” Norris said. “I couldn’t believe the support we got.”

  She admits the time after Kristen’s death was very tough.  There were times she couldn’t even spell her name.  However, Norris says she could always find comfort in the fact that Kristen was able to spare other families the grief she had to go though.

  Alfredo, the 8 year-old who received a kidney from Kristen, actually had a twin brother with the same condition.  There was only one match for both of them – their father.  “I couldn’t even imagine the emotion the father had to go through,” Norris said, “having to choose one son over the other.”

  Another recipient, Elise, had severe diabetes.  After receiving Kristen’s kidney, her diabetes was corrected, Norris said, which was just miraculous.

  And one of the most satisfying things about the whole organ donation process, Norris said, is the fact that part of Kristen still lives throughout these different people.

  Following Kristen’s death, Norris feared her daughter would be forgotten and that the magnificent spirit she created while she was still alive would just vanish.  “Now she’s (physically and) spiritually with these people,” Norris said.  “That to me is just tremendous – they just got this incredible guardian angel.

  “And I know that Alfredo, his family….and his future children as well, will never forget Kristen.”

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