Everything we do affects everyone

Last week’s episode of the Radiolab podcast was great. Like really great, one of those rare ones that you can’t stop thinking about.

It was the story of husband and wife Sarah and Ross and their identical twin boys. Six months into Sarah’s pregnancy, she went in for a routine checkup and discovered that one of the boys, Thomas, had a deformed skull and wouldn’t survive the birth. He was brought into the world alive despite this, but passed away a few days later. That’s not the story though.

The story is about what happens after that, when Sarah and Ross decide to donate Thomas’s organs. Months after the donation, the only communication they’d received from the donation agency was a routine thank you letter. Part of Thomas ended up in Boston, it said, and the other part of him ended up in Durham, NC.

And that’s what the story is about: Sarah’s quest to know more than the scant details mentioned in the thank you letter. What research, exactly, had Thomas’s organs helped? Who were the people on the other side of the curtain, the doctors and researchers tasked with opening a box with the pieces of a boy and then saving lives with them?

Apparently, the eyes of a baby are like gold in the world of organ donation. They don’t stop generating tissue for a few years after the child is born. Two years after the donation, a researcher told Sarah that Thomas’s eyes were still helping other kids.

The story is deeply touching not so much because of what they found; we expect when we check off that box at the DMV that our no-longer-needed organs will be put to good use. Or maybe we don’t think about it, but we certainly don’t envision them in the back of a fridge, forgotten and growing mold, stinking up McDreamy’s lunch.

No, the reason I can’t get this podcast out of my head is because of what Sarah says at the end, summing up her journey:

I used to think the universe treated the people the way it should, and now I don’t really believe that…
Before Thomas, I had felt like I was a boat on an ocean that was rocky and choppy with waves. And then, I had this feeling that I’m not the boat, I’m the ocean. Like, the decisions that I make are changing other people, as opposed to just ‘I’m a boat getting slapped with waves all the time.’
It has made me feel powerful.

Last week I got an email from Charity Water, an amazing organization working to bring clean water to parts of the world that need it.

If you’d asked me before I opened that email what I got my roommate Daniel for his birthday last year, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. The email reminded me that in 2014, Daniel made a campaign on the Charity Water website and took donations for his birthday in lieu of presents.

The email was an update email. They’d just finished a project in Cambodia with the money Daniel raised along with three other birthdays and a wedding campaign, and there at the bottom was a line-item for David Oates: $20. The project brought water to a community of 3,000 people, and was completed by a partner organization.

Imagine if every time we sent help out into the world — in the form of a donation, or an eyeball, or maybe a Facebook post sharing our deepest battles in the hopes they help someone else in kind — we received a report in our inbox, six, eight months later letting us know the impact of our good deeds.

Do you think we’d give more?

We are all constantly giving gifts every day. Every time we make eye contact with someone we’re speaking with. Every morning when we show up to work and support our colleague. A quarter in the tip jar. Giving our seat up for an elderly woman on the subway. Listening to a friend.

These things don’t seem like gifts. Most of the time there’s no email that comes in, no follow-up, no pat on the back from the universe for our good deed. Which is why it’s so profound and life-altering when it does.

We all know what it’s like to feel like that ship. I know I do. The next time I’m feeling stuck, I’m going to remember that no matter how disconnected I feel, no life can be lived in isolation. We’re all floating, and we’re all helping to keep each other afloat, whether we know it or not. The next time I feel like that ship, I’m going to try and notice the gifts.

I’m also going to donate my organs. My eyes aren’t generating tissue anymore, unfortunately, but maybe the people on the other side of the curtain will still want them.

You can find the podcast here: http://www.radiolab.org/story/grays-donation/

Thanks to Collette Weinberger, Matt Bilotti and my wonderful mother for looking over this for me

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