Avera Medical Minute: Wall of Heroes shares stories of donors

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - About 115,000 people across the nation are waiting for a life-saving donation like an organ or tissue. About 3,500 of them are in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

There is a wall that remembers those we've lost; some living fulfilling lives and some lost just too soon at the Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls. All of them though made a difference no matter what age they died.

"We hope that what the Wall of Heroes does is inspire other people to know that their loved one can also save a life and leave a wonderful legacy," Cary Wencil said, who is the hospital liaison for LifeSource.

He works with all of the hospitals in eastern South Dakota to make sure they're maximizing their donation programs. The Wall of Heroes honors the men and women who have donated their organs, tissue or eyes after passing away.

"The most rewarding thing is getting to know recipients, people who have received an organ and also working with those families that who lost a loved one, who are going through this horrible, tragic shocking time, and then finding out there's some hope that we can help somebody else," Wencil said.

Debra Smith is one of those donor recipients. She had full cornea transplants in both of her eyes.

"I was thinking about my donors, what really happened, the families left behind," Smith said. "I come from a close family, and I felt their immense pain of loss."

But that loss turned into being grateful and giving back.

"I'm unable to bring the loved ones back, but I can wake up every morning and say good morning to strangers and smile," she said.

Her donor was Steve. He lived in Brandon, served in the military and was a big sports fan.

"He's showing me the sights," Smith said. "I'm driving again. I see pheasants in the fields. I see billboards blocks ahead."

Smith has met his family a few times, and she considers them part of her family now. These are the donor's stories Kristy Colford walks by all the time at Avera McKennan hospital in Sioux Falls.

"It's always really fun to kind of see families just sitting there looking at those different stories that kind of scroll through," Colford said, who is the chair of the Avera Donor Resource committee. "I too, every time I walk by it, I see another patient story and it just means a lot."

More stories are added to the wall every year, reminding people how important being a donor is.

"Have those conversations with your loved ones and stuff about what your wishes and stuff are," Colford said.

"I hope they think about helping others because that's what this is all about, and most people want to help other people," Wencil said.

Because one donor can impact up to 70 different people and give them a new outlook on life.

Many people know they can choose to check the donor box when they get their driver's license to become a donor. You can also sign up online here at any time.