A decision made at a DMV saved my life.
Sixteen years after the fact, I’m standing in line at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. I begin to bounce on my toes as the line shifts forward—I’m approaching the moment I’ve been waiting for ever since I motored around in my plastic foot-powered yellow Jeep at the age of five and thought longingly of the open road beyond our asphalt driveway.
I lean to the right to look back into the DMV waiting room. I’ve already paid my dues there; my back is sore after sitting for hours on the cracked vinyl upholstery of the tacky plastic chairs. I’ve inhaled the heady scent of sweat and shag carpeting that oozes from the very pores of the place. I’ve listened to the incessant drone of the intercom as a string of numbers was called out, and endured the anguish of hearing, “Now serving number 182!” and looking down at the little black 291 etched on my paper in taunting black ink. Now, after the nail-biting, spine-tingling task of parallel parking and driving around the block has been completed, I have been ushered back inside to be issued that coveted square of plastic that is more commonly termed “the junior driver’s license.”
My dad is standing behind me in line. He can make conversation with almost anything, and since I’m too caught up in a daze of happiness, he has turned his efforts to the man behind us. Soon, him and the other dad—they’re an easy breed to spot, what with their polo shirts and baseball caps and shadows of anxious teens trailing in their wake—are talking about everything from muscle cars to fly fishing. The teen standing behind the other man exchanges half-excited, half-embarrassed looks with me.
The line inches forward again, and we finally reach the front. The woman at the desk smiles broadly at me. Despite the dull atmosphere of the DMV, her tone is perky as she asks for my paperwork. Then again, she only sees the success stories. Only those who have passed the test go to her. She holds the key to my future, the swath of plastic that will change my world.
She asks me for the necessary details—name, date of birth, address, etc.—and I rattle them off eagerly. I’m already picturing what I will do with my newfound independence. I think of the places I’ll be able to go now without becoming tangled in the schedules of my two younger sisters. I think of the few friends I’ve confided in about my plans for today, just in case I failed, and how I will now broadcast the story to anyone who will listen. I think of the endless places to which I can now drive and the endless things which I can now do.
But then, the woman at the desk asks her last question. She pauses before she does so, and taps a space on the application with a long pink fingernail. Then she squints up at me over her red-rimmed glasses, as if examining something within me that is beyond the surface details of age, height, and eye color.
“Do you want to be an organ donor?” she asks me.
In that moment, I’m not thinking of the future. Instead, I am transported back into the past.
First, I’m four again, squirming against the nurse who is holding my arm on the edge of the cold metal hospital chair. She’s armed with a needle she calls a “butterfly,” but even this insect euphemism does not completely reassure me.
Then I’m eight, pursing my lips in an oval so the clear liquid medication dribbles down my chin. I’m on a futile quest to keep it from touching my tongue, but my mom just hands me a glass of apple juice to wash the taste away. As I swallow I feel bitter chemicals coursing down my throat along with the tangy, fruity juice I will never completely enjoy again.
But then I’m two, peering down through the soft blue folds of the blanket into the eyes of my baby sister. I’m five and hiding on the soft wood-chip soil under the jungle gym with my friends and our Beanie Babies, and we’re on a mission to save the kingdom before the lunch bell rings. I’m fourteen and riding in a pink Jeep over the bumpy desserts of Sedona; I’m twelve and bobbing between the cool ocean waves on a scorching summer day. I’m singing and dancing and laughing and crying and trying and failing and doing thousands and thousands of things as the movie of my life reels through my head. Some are good, and some are sad, and a few of them are just plain embarrassing.
All of them, though, have one thing in common. In all of the millions of memories housed in the scrapbook of my head and my heart, I am very much alive.
And this is because one day, over sixteen years ago, another girl stood at another DMV counter and answered the clerk’s last question with a “Yes.” And because of that that one simple decision, that girl’s liver continues to live on in my body, even after she passed away in a motor vehicle accident.
At six months old, I became the recipient of an organ transplant.
Because of this, I stand in the DMV counter and give the only answer to the woman’s final question that I possibly can. It is the only answer that seems right. It is the only answer I hope I would give even without sixteen years of personal experience regarding the perks of organ donation.
You see, organ donors are few and far between. Though ninety percent of Americans claim to support organ donation, only thirty percent check that little box at the DMV that commits them to the task. An average of twenty-two people die each day while on the transplant waiting list (organdonor.gov). Sixteen years ago, I was fortunate enough to be taken off the list just in time. I am incredibly grateful for the liver I was given. Of course I have been subjected to medications and hospital trips and tests for most of my life. I’ve also been subjected to family and friends and school and travel and everything that makes life wonderful. For me, it’s a fair trade. And I think that others deserve the chance to experience life as I have.
So I look the woman behind the desk straight in the eye. Her face is framed with frizzy blond hair, and she wears an unremarkable green polo. Even in such a dull, dreary place, I think she knows, too. I think she knows what an impact one simple answer can have. I think that she knows, as I know, that if enough people answer the right way, there won’t be a need for a transplant list. I think she knows that if the generosity of my own organ donor were to be felt by everyone receiving a license today, we could become a society remembered for giving gifts that lived on well after our lives had run their course. I think there is a glimmer of hope in her eye that is realized as I respond, “Yes.”
Sixteen years ago, a decision made at a DMV saved my life. Now it is my turn to take the wheel. Who will join me?
Megan Kane is a rising sophomore at Elizabethtown College. She is pursuing a degree in English/Secondary Education. In her free time, Megan enjoys reading, writing for the school newspaper, spending time with friends and playing the violin in the community orchestra. She lives in Clarks Summit, PA.