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A Changed View: Funeral Director’s Perspective on Donation

As a former funeral director, Kelley wasn’t always an advocate for organ, eye and tissue donation. Until she experienced first-hand how one woman’s life changed drastically thanks to a bone tissue transplant.

Funeral directors are used to telling stories and celebrating people. This is what we do, and we do it beautifully. Caring for people has always been my passion. I knew from a very young age that I would always be in a caring profession. I started in nursing and then stumbled upon funeral service and knew this is where I was meant to be.

To be completely transparent, as a funeral director, I recall how difficult it was to move forward when myself or my colleagues heard that word – donation. When we get that initial phone call, sometimes we would just cringe. It made my job more difficult with preparation, reconstruction, dressing and private viewing. I also felt that it was taking advantage of a family at a difficult time.

I used to feel that way – exactly – until I had a personal experience; and I’d like to share a story about an incredible woman named Penny Joan Lohman. Penny, like many others, that had come into the care of the funeral home had a story and a family; she struggled for five years with illness prior to her death.

In 2006, Penny received a diagnosis of a rare lung disease called Bronchiolitis Obliterans with Organizing Pneumonia – BOOP for short, was not as adorable as it sounds. For Penny, it eventually developed into something similar to Pulmonary Fibrosis mixed with Pneumonia, so she could not breathe very well at all. The early stages began with a dry cough, which was thought to be allergies to a medication. She was treated with long-term oral steroids and seemed to improve. Her cough came back and – along with it – a shortness of breath. Another round of oral steroids seemed to be the best treatment plan – it ended up being more of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it helped her to breathe (which was phenomenal!), but it really played havoc on other systems in her body.

Penny then began struggling with other health concerns and was placed on dialysis. The shortness of breath worsened and eventually she was placed on oxygen full time. Penny continued to take rounds of steroids, would rebound and taper off, then BOOP would flare again. It was a vicious cycle.

Several years into her illness, the oral steroids began to ravage her body. Her immune system became compromised, and she developed several infections in her dialysis shunt. She suffered with fluid overload and developed Osteoporosis. The nurses and doctors on Unit 4 West really began to know her family well with her frequent hospitalizations. Countless holidays and birthdays were spent on that unit. The care team became Penny’s extended family.

New complications seemed to occur frequently; however, none were worse than the stress fractures she developed in her spine from steroid-induced Osteoporosis. Five of them to be exact. This was a whole new level of discomfort and one that could not be easily treated.

As a family member, seeing someone that you love in so much pain 24 hours a day – and knowing there is nothing you can do – you would do anything in your power to help them. You would take away their pain, bring them to the best specialists, and provide whatever you could for them.

Penny could not sit, stand, lay down, or walk without being in severe pain. One can only imagine how intense this pain was – hurting with every breath taken. Numerous doctors were consulted, and few options were available for treatment. Finally, her physician recommended her family meet with a surgeon and consider a bone transplant from a deceased donor. Her family discussed this at great length – they were skeptical and didn’t know what it meant. They were willing to do anything to help her and decided this was what they could do to provide her with relief.

So, why does this story matter? Why am I sharing all these details about a woman named Penny? This amazing woman was my mom.

It took me seeing what the power of tissue donation did for my own family to understand what this meant. After my mom suffered with stress fractures in her spine, she received the gift of bone in the form of a putty that was injected into the fractured areas. The putty would go on to fill the fractures and help her bone heal. Within a period of about a month, my mom was able to stand with a walker, and within two months, she was able to walk. This amazing gift that a complete stranger gave to my mom.

To know I will never be able to thank the person who gave my mom that gift, it’s unsurmountable the gift they gave us, and for her to live her last year pain free. I will be forever grateful.

In 2011, Penny died at the age of 60, leaving behind her devoted husband of 40 years, 3 loving children and their spouses, an only grandson (who was spoiled beyond measure), 4 siblings, a wealth of dear friends and treasured colleagues. She was an intelligent, inspirational woman who earned two master’s degrees and nearly earned her doctorate prior to her death.

As funeral directors, donation is not our choice, it’s the family’s choice. And it truly is a beautiful legacy their loved one leaves behind – impacting tens to hundreds of lives, like my mom Penny. It’s our privilege and honor to assist families and celebrate the lives of those we are entrusted to our care. We spend countless hours planning each detail to honor their loved one. Ensuring that when the family has departed from our presence for the final time, that we have done our very best to celebrate that life.

About the Author: Kelly Romanowski

As a LifeSource Partner Support Liaison, Kelley Romanowski collaborates with funeral directors across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Mortuary Science degree from the University of Minnesota, Kelley worked in a Twin Cities funeral home – serving approximately 700 families per year – for nearly 11 years prior to joining the LifeSource team. She has also worked with local transplant centers to facilitate donor organ transportation and became a Certified Tissue Bank Specialist through AATB in 2016. Kelley continually attends education sessions and seeks out process improvement ideas in partnership with funeral director partners to better support the families they jointly serve.


What‘s Your Edge: Kelley Romanowski – Order of the Golden Rule Podcast