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MT woman encourages others to give the gift of organ donation in memory of late son

April is Donate Life Month
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Posted at 1:08 PM, Apr 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-28 15:08:36-04

BILLINGS — Recovery from a severe injury or burn can drastically enhance the quality of someone’s life -- that’s the message from a Billings woman who is empowering others to become organ and tissue donors.

April is Donate Life Month. Roughly 1 in 20 people will need a tissue transplant in their lifetime, so recognition is given to those who have helped extend or enhance the lives of others during this time.

“I feel it's important for people to know that it's okay to donate,” said Kim Shanks. “I think that there's healing power in having your loved one donate.”

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Shanks lost her son TJ in a car crash in 2013. He was 22 years old. TJ was a fiery kid. He had red hair, and "an attitude to go with it,” she said.

When Shanks thinks about her son, she lights up, "he was a helper. He loved his friends, he loved his family, he would have given his shirt off his back to anybody."

And that’s true because she says TJ opted to become an organ donor. Shanks says when it came a time though, it was the family who made the decision on where his major organs, as well as his tissue, went.

They made sure to fulfill his wishes.

“Five major organs were donated, and 29 other skin and bone parts were donated as well,” she said. “His heart went to someone in California. His lungs went to someone in Washington state, as well as his liver is in someone in Washington state as well. There was a kidney in Alaska.”

Life Net Health, which serves as a leading provider of organ donation and tissue banking services, reports that one donor can save as many as nine lives; and restore eyesight to two people through the donation of corneas and enhance the lives of as many as 150 different people through tissue donation.

“There are over 110,000 people across the United States that are in desperate need of an organ transplant to live, and so they wait for those opportunities for people to make that decision,” said Life Net Health General Manager Chandler Brownlee, who is based in Seattle.

And it seems Montanans lead the nation in donations with roughly 87% of the population age 18 and older registered as organ, eye, and tissue donors, according to information listed on the Montana Department of Justice’s website.

“You know, giving the gift of life is something that you know is priceless," Brownlee said.

Shanks says the mission of donation is really two-fold, by helping extend or enhance the life of someone else but also empowering the family of a loved one recently passed, "I know our family has healed tremendously."

Albeit difficult at times.

“But to feel like what we were sending out were parts of him, and then letters started coming back, and those parts turned into people and people that had stories and people that had families and knowing the impact he made on those 34 people was huge.”

Those with Life Net Health say people can sign up to be organ, tissue, and eye donor through donatelife.net or registerme.org. Montanans can also opt to become donors on their Montana driver’s license or ID card if they are 15 years old or older.