Updated: September 2, 2014 at 1:54 pm
Kate Gallagher was a graduate of Air Academy High School, engaged to be married and studying early childhood development at Pikes Peak Community College. She had a special way with children, who seemed magically drawn to her - the one grownup in the room who, kids could tell, would be game for whatever.
Kate would drop to the floor to play with them, despite the constant pain in her abdomen and the swelling in her legs. Complaining was never her way.
"The best part about Kate was her heart. She was so compassionate, she just loved kids and she wanted to help people," said her father, Mark Gallagher, of Monument.
In 2005, when she was a high school senior, Kate was diagnosed with a liver disease called Budd-Chiari syndrome. Clogs in the hepatic veins had irreparably damaged her liver, and in 2009, she was placed on the liver transplant list at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.
"We knew when Kate got a transplant it would be difficult, but she just accepted all that," said her mother, Gail. "We met donor families and recipient families. I thought how brave they were to go out in public and talk about their loved ones. At that time, I never realized that the tables would be turned and Kate wouldn't be a recipient, but a donor."
Colorado a top 3 donor state
An estimated 120,000 people in the U.S., and just more than 2,400 in Colorado, are waiting for a donor organ. About 15 percent have been waiting for five years or more.
"On average, 400 lives are saved each year thanks to organ donors from Colorado," said Andrea Smith, communications director for Donor Alliance, the nonprofit organization federally designated to handle all aspects of donor organ and tissue procurement in Colorado and most of Wyoming.
An individual can save as many as eight lives through the donation of healthy organs, she said.
"You have right and left kidneys, liver, heart, right and left lung, pancreas, and small intestine. We definitely have seven- and eight-organ donors, whose organs go to save that many people," Smith said.
Colorado is consistently among the top three states in donor designation rates, with more than two-thirds of residents - about 68 percent - on the state's Donate Life Organ and Tissue Donor Registry. Donor status is indicated by a red heart on state driver's licenses. Donors also can join the registry online.
"We've been second in the nation behind Alaska for the last three years," Smith said, adding that the strong support for the program might be due to Coloradans' "sense of giving and generosity for others. Possibly that pioneering spirit."
Outreach and education are key
"A lot of people make assumptions, like that it goes against religion. But in fact, all major western religions support organ and tissue donations," she said. "If people have a high level of understanding that there's a real connection between saying yes and saving a life, they're certainly more likely to say yes."
The reasons cited by those who haven't yet joined donor registries can seem petty - say, "I'm too busy" - but also can offer a window for educators such as Smith to correct damaging misinformation.
"People medically rule themselves out all the time. They say, 'Oh, I'd love to be an organ donor, but I can't. I'm diabetic. I'm too old. I'm too sick,'" Smith said.
"Even things that rule you out for donation today, in 50 years when you pass away, it might not be an issue. There are medical advances every day."
A bright spot from despair
On March 12, 2012, 26-year-old Kate Gallagher suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was admitted to the emergency room. Soon after, her condition deteriorated to the point she was non-responsive and breathing only with the help of a ventilator. The following day, after tests showed no brain activity, she was declared dead.
Despite the fact that Kate had liver disease and was on the waiting list herself, she saved three lives through the donation of her organs.
Her left kidney went to a grandfather of four, an avid hunter and fisherman. Her right kidney saved the life of a grandmother in her 60s. Her heart went to a 12-year-old girl who'd suffered a heart attack on the basketball court.
"The two days Kate was in the hospital was a blur. The only bright spot was when they told us that her heart was going to a young girl," Gail said. "The very next day, she had Kate's heart."
As a donor volunteer, Gail now shares her daughter's story with the public and with those who work with potential donors and recipients within the hospital setting.
"How they do their jobs can make a difference. There has to be excellent care after the doctor confirms brain death in order for organs to be donated," she said.
"Like in Kate's case, even if a patient is on a ventilator and a doctor has declared no brain activity, they still have to have really good care so that 12 hours later they can donate as many organs as possible."
Organ donation, said Mark, provided the only comfort to be found in the despair.
"We're never going to be the same, but in the past almost three years, the only bright spot is knowing Kate's heart is beating in another little girl's chest," he said.
"How many people can say they've been able to save three lives?"
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364