Friends and family members of those who have given the gift of organ donation look at their loved ones' photographs on the Wall of Heroes.
Friends and family members of those who have given the gift of organ donation look at their loved ones' photographs on the Wall of Heroes.
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Heroes in life, death: Organ donors give ultimate gift

Published on Monday, November 19, 2018

By: Ruth Cummins

Receiving the gift of life allowed Bogue Chitto resident Myron Smith to pay it forward 13 years later.

Smith died at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in August after suffering a massive stroke. In 2005, Smith received a kidney transplant at a Honolulu hospital after his own failed. The transplanted organ began losing its function about two years ago.

He began at-home dialysis with help from his wife of 27 years, Velia Smith, a native of Mexico whose family has lived in Honolulu for many years. That allowed him to finish building the couple’s dream home entirely on his own, Velia said.

“We talked about it a long time ago,” she said of organ donation. “We put on our driver’s license that we would donate our organs. When they asked me about Myron, I said sure – that I want to see him continuing to be alive in another person. I was happy to do it.”

The late Myron Smith of Bogue Chitto, an organ donor, is pictured with his wife, Velia Smith.

Myron’s liver and corneas now live on in others. “He was the best man, and a very good father for my son,” Velia said.

Velia’s generosity at one of the lowest points in her life isn’t unique. Others who made that same decision in the midst of traumatic grief have extended the lives of many Mississippians and others awaiting transplants in surrounding states.

The stories of adult and pediatric donors are represented by their photos on two Walls of Heroes. One is located at UMMC’s University Hospital, and a second one is in 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.

They were honored Friday during the annual Wall of Heroes recognition ceremony at UMMC’s Chapel. 

Dozens of family members and friends of organ donors take part in the tribute.

Although the decision to donate a loved one’s organs or tissues is painful, “at the end of the day, that person, that family, did something selfless,” Dr. Hannah Copeland, a heart transplant surgeon and assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery, told the gathering. “You did the right thing. You did a good thing, and it will not be forgotten.”

The need for organ donation is great. So far in 2018, MORA says, 203 organs have been transplanted after being donated overall by 68 Mississippians while tissues has been donated by 215 Mississippians. Another 1,300-plus Mississippi residents await a transplant, and the national waiting list is more than 114,000. 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.

After the family of 60-year-old Rick Cothern of Brandon made the decision to donate in September 2012, Cothern’s corneas and other tissues lived on in others.

“He was the ideal man,” said his son, Paul Cothern Jr. of Florence, who attended the ceremony with a host of Rick Cothern’s family members. “We spent many years racing go-karts together. He never met a stranger. He taught me everything I know.”

Paul Cothern Jr. takes a photograph of a picture of his father, the late Rick Cothern, on the pediatric Wall of Heroes.

Shortly after her husband’s kidney transplant, Velia said, the couple moved back to Mississippi, her husband’s birthplace. “The kidney worked perfectly,” she said. But unfortunately, she said, it began to fail in 2016, and he began dialysis in September 2017.

His stroke was “completely unexpected,” Velia. Her husband’s medical team “said he could help three people. I said yes, that I wanted to continue on Myron’s life.”

Many tears were shed at the Wall of Heroes ceremony, but many smiles were shared as family and friends viewed photographs of donors from all walks of life that hang on the two walls.

“We celebrate our heroes. We are so grateful to them,” said Doris Whitaker, director of pastoral services at the Medical Center.

“We remember them.”