Transplant Recipients, Donor Families Celebrate Life

By Aisling Maki

Mid-South organ and tissue transplant recipients and the families of donors who gave them a second chance at life will gather Sunday, April 15, at 2 p.m. for a celebration of life and remembrance at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.

It’s the sixth year for “Linking Hands for Life,” an event organized by the Mid-South Transplant Foundation Inc., a Cordova-based, federally designated organ procurement organization serving West Tennessee, Eastern Arkansas and North Mississippi.

The organization works with health care professionals and members of the community to increase the volume of organ and tissue donations for life-saving transplantation.

April is Donate Life Month, and Linking Hands for Life will be held in conjunction with similar events around the country.

“I had always thought about the fact that so often those families that extend life to others never really get to see the benefit,” said Erskine Gillespie, community development coordinator for the Mid-South Transplant Foundation Inc. “They’ve seen the dark day when they lost their loved one, but they never got to see the joy that’s come because of this decision they made.”

Seventeen years ago, Gillespie was given one week to live unless he received a liver transplant. On the seventh day, a donor liver became available and he underwent a liver transplant at Methodist University Hospital.

Upon his recovery, Gillespie started volunteering with, and was later hired by, the Mid-South Transplant Foundation.

He said Linking Hands for Life is a festive event for families that includes live music and games for children because “we don’t need to take them back to that dark day; we want to celebrate the gift. Even though they may not get a chance to meet their specific recipient, they do get to see other families who are restored because of donations.”

He said the event – free and open to the public – brings together not only organ and tissue transplant recipients and the families of donors, but also people who are awaiting transplants, advocates and those who want to just learn more about organ and tissue donation.

“They’ve seen the dark day when they lost their loved one, but they never got to see the joy that’s come because of this decision they made.”

–Erskine Gillespie
Community development coordinator, Mid-South Transplant Fdtn.

“It’s a time for people to bring out their families and friends for an opportunity to learn something,” Gillespie said. “They can have an experience that day that can impact them enough to register as a donor. They may hear words from a family who’s gone through this process, or from someone who has been so sick that they’ve almost died, but now you see them walking through the park after their transplant, holding their baby.”

Last year about 1,000 people attended the event. This year’s the Foundation hopes the event will attract 3,000 attendees, Gillespie said.

Linking Hands for Life will conclude with participants linking hands along Poplar Avenue, just outside Overton Park, with each donor’s family escorted by a recipient or a person awaiting a transplant.

Participants will then release balloons in memory of those who’ve given the gift of life. Each balloon will have a note of gratitude attached to it, written by a transplant recipient or their family member.

“The balloons float and wherever they land, it leaves a message for whoever finds that balloon,” Gillespie said.

He said a few years ago, a balloon ended up in Hernando at the front door of a farmhouse. The owner was so touched after reading the attached card that she made a financial contribution to the Mid-South Transplant Foundation.