My sister Jess
Nothing ever prepares you for the shock of losing someone in such a sudden way.
Dayna Johnson spoke at the Thanksgiving Service in Auckland in 2012. She was kind enough to share her story with us.
We all have someone that we look up to. For me that was my big sister, Jessica Ramsay. She was ten years older than me and my earliest memories are of her as a teenager. Being a typical rebellious teenager she may not have always been the best role model at times, but she introduced me to a whole range of things to look forward to in life.
To start off with I looked forward to things like going to high school, decorating my room, driving, even getting taller and being able to share her clothes. Eventually Jess had four of the most precious people in my life; my nephew Cleveland and nieces Kopiri, Journey and CJay. Watching her live her life made me excited about growing up and experiencing the same things.
After leaving school, Jess worked as a kaiako in our kōhanga, Te Kōhanga Reo O Whaakirangi. She also completed a Diploma in Early Childhood Education, both in English and Māori, hoping to eventually continue her studies into secondary school teaching. She was the person who we all thought would lead our marae when our elders had passed on.
It was just over three years ago that I received the message from Mum that would change my life. Jess had been in a car accident and was in ICU at Hawke’s Bay Hospital.
I’d just moved up to Auckland from my hometown of Napier and had just finished my first week of university. I didn’t really know anyone, didn’t know my way around, and certainly didn’t know what to do if an emergency came up.
So that first night, as I made preparations to go home, everything was being done in Hawke’s Bay to try and save Jess’s life. We were told to prepare for the worst while the medical staff did their tests overnight. Everyone in our whānau prayed for a miracle that night.
The next day confirmed that Jess was brain dead. She was 28-years-old.
I will never forget arriving at the hospital the next day and seeing Jess for the first time. Hearing the extent of her injuries was horrific. Seeing them was worse. They were so bad that I didn’t recognise her.
Nothing ever prepares you for the shock of losing someone in such a sudden way. So after she was confirmed brain-dead, hospital staff asked our Mum and Nan whether they would consider organ donation.
They decided that Jess would donate her heart, liver and kidneys. I wasn’t very happy about it. It looked like Jess was still alive, even though machines were doing the work.
Organ donation seemed so final. Once you’ve lost your vital organs, there really is no chance of going back. The decision came as a real shock to me. I had only talked about organ donation in the past once with Mum and she said, as many Māori do, that we leave this world how we came in. I went with her viewpoint, never really thinking that at some point in the future either myself or someone I know would ever be in that position.
For Jess’s last two hours, I sat with her holding her hand, hoping that somehow a miracle would happen and she would return to us so we wouldn’t need to donate her organs.
Looking back now I am very proud of the decision that was made that day. Although our whānau had lost so much, Jess’s final act was to change the lives of four strangers; four women who we will never know and never meet. I think about them often. Even though it’s impossible, I wish that Jess could know what a wonderful thing she’s done.
Before organ donation I never really knew what it was like to give without expecting anything back in return and to feel good about it. It’s days like today when it’s easy to see the good that comes from organ donation.
I can’t speak for all donor families but for me, I take a great deal of comfort from knowing that even though I couldn’t save my sister, my family could give that opportunity to others. Seeing how many recipients come to these Thanksgiving Services reaffirms that my family made the right decision.
To say that losing Jess has been hard would be an understatement. Her death has been the most difficult situation I’ve ever encountered. Even if I never told her in so many words, it was nice to know that she was just there. Now I have a sister-sized hole in my life that can never be filled.
As the saying goes, you never really know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Jess has played as big a part in her recipients’ lives as she did in mine. I am very proud of her.
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