Ark. Organ Donor to be Honored at Rose Parade

By Aisling Maki

Verna Harris is able to work 40 hours a week. She goes to church on Sundays and enjoys taking in a movie now and then.

She still has to make sure she gets adequate rest, but her quality of life has improved tremendously since she underwent a kidney transplant at Methodist University Hospital in April 2010.

“My life is normal now,” Harris said. “Before I had my transplant, I felt weak all the time. I think I felt good maybe one week out of a month, but now I feel good. I just want to do things and say, ‘Wow, I’m living now.’ I didn’t feel that before.”

Harris is one of several people who received a new lease on life thanks to organ donor Michael “Rudy” Gilmore of West Helena, Ark. Gilmore is one of 72 organ donors from the U.S., Canada, Japan and Taiwan being honored with a florograph portrait – a portrait made entirely of organic plant materials – on the 2012 Donate Life Rose Parade float in the 2012 Rose Parade Jan. 2 in Pasadena, Calif.

Gilmore was shot to death in April 2010, just months before he would’ve graduated from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. The 24-year-old’s diploma was awarded posthumously, received by his mother.

More than 1,500 people showed up at Gilmore’s funeral to remember a young man described as friendly, fun-loving and dedicated to helping others.

A journal entry discovered after his death reads, “The meaning of my life is to help others. … I was put here to help people some way or somehow.”

Gilmore had registered as an organ donor when he received his driver’s license.

Since the donation, his family has met Harris, as well as Sammy Robinson, the Hughes, Ark., man who received Gilmore’s heart.

Gilmore received his associate’s degree from Phillips County Community College, where his family has started a scholarship fund in his honor.

Friends, family members and transplant recipients gathered Tuesday, Dec. 13, at the college to complete the florograph portrait, which will be shipped to California for the parade.

“It’s a great honor, and although he’s not here with us, he’s here in spirit,” Harris said. “From what I hear, he was such a nice person. He tried to help people, he was smart in school and he was a hard worker. I hate that this happened to him, but his legacy will always live on.”

The float is sponsored by Mid-South Transplant Foundation Inc., a federally designated organ-procurement organization serving West Tennessee, Eastern Arkansas and North Mississippi.

In addition to the florographs, the float will carry thousands of roses with personal dedications of love and remembrance from around the world in a unique dedication garden.

“The float itself is the nation’s most visible public celebration of organ and tissue donation,” said Randa Lipman, manager of community outreach at Mid-South Transplant Foundation. “It’s a great chance for us to promote the benefits because there will be 26 recipients who ride on the float and another 72 donors who will be represented as florographs. It’s a great opportunity for us to promote organ donation in such a positive way.”

Mid-South Transplant Foundation will fly Gilmore’s mother, Jerlene, brother DeMarcus and sister Kaneisha to Pasadena for the event.

Gilmore’s killer has not been caught, and Jerlene Gilmore said the holidays are the most emotionally challenging time for her and her family. But she hopes the trip to California – the family’s first time leaving the Mid-South – in honor of her son will help heal their broken hearts.

“It’s overwhelming, and it’s a bittersweet situation,” she said. “Out of all the people they could’ve honored, they chose him and our family, and it’s a high honor for us.”

The 2012 Rose Parade will air on local televisions stations.