Carolyn Johnson honored at 2019 Gift of Life Ceremony

SUBMITTED PHOTO Members of the Carolyn Johnson family are pictured in front of the Governor’s Mansion located in Madison, Wisc. Johnson was recently honored at a Gift of Life Ceremony in Wisconsin as an organ donor. Pictured from left are Terry and Lori Pelzl, Beverly Hanson, Marshall Johnson, Mark Johnson, and Wyanita and Bruce Ferden.
By : 
Kristin Burdey

Carolyn Johnson’s final act this side of heaven was one of loving service, as she gave the gift of life through organ donation following a fatal brain aneurysm days before Christmas in 2018. Her family recently took part in a ceremony honoring Carolyn and others like her at the 2019 Gift of Life Ceremony in Madison, Wis.

On Friday, August 2, Mark Johnson and his son Marshall made the journey to the Wisconsin State Capitol, along with Carolyn’s mother Beverly Hanson, her sister Lori Pelzl, and husband Terry. When the group arrived in Madison they were joined by Carolyn’s other sister Wyanita Ferden and her husband Bruce.

The Gift of Life Ceremony has been taking place in Wisconsin for over two decades as an annual event to honor the families of those who generously give the gift of life through organ, tissue, and eye donation. Although every state honors donors and families in some way, Wisconsin is the only state that brings them to the Executive Residence to be presented with a medal by the Governor.

Though the Johnsons are Minnesota residents, but Carolyn’s organs were donated in La Crosse, Wis., which included them in the Wisconsin event. “In 2018 there were 210 organ donors from Wisconsin, many of whom had signed up on the Wisconsin Donor Registry,” explains Gian Galassi of the University of Wisconsin Health Marketing and Communications. “Others became donors as a result of the generosity of grieving fathers, mothers, family members and friends who were faced with the difficult choice and made it: the choice to save a life.” 

When the Johnsons arrived in Madison, they were bussed into the Governor’s Mansion. Guests were invited to walk the grounds and enjoy the gardens and lakeshore before the 10 a.m. ceremony. This allowed them an opportunity to visit with the Governor’s staff, members of the medical community, and other families there for the same reason. There were 220 family members in attendance in the Executive Gardens, representing 53 organ donors.

After a welcome speech, attendees heard a presentation from the Lyons family, a donor family who lost their daughter, a student at UW-La Crosse. The Lyons have spent the subsequent three years honoring her memory by sharing her story. Guests then had the opportunity to hear another perspective: that of an organ recipient. Bill Simmons received a heart through organ donation and shared how precious it was to attend his grandkids’ ballgames and take them fishing. “What can I say but thank you?” he asked.

Then each donor family was brought up one at a time to meet Governor Tony Evers and First Lady Kathy Evers, who were presiding over their first ceremony since being elected in 2018. Families were encouraged to bring a 5x7 photo of their loved one in order to show both the Governor and fellow attendees. Each family was able to spend several minutes with the Governor and share their story. “I was able to look him in the eye,” Mark shared. “And tell him that Carolyn was the best.” The Johnsons were then presented with a medal that read “In Honor of Carolyn M. Johnson Who Gave the Gift of Life.”

Because of the 210 Wisconsin organ donors in 2018, more than 550 lives were saved through transplant, as each donor can save up to eight lives. Twenty people on average die each day in America while waiting for an organ transplant, and a new patient is added to the waiting list every 11 minutes, adding to the total of over 113,000 people waiting for their gift of life. “Wisconsin is among the nation’s most generous when it comes to saying yes to donation,” Galassi stated. “About 90 percent of the time, when presented with the opportunity, families such as these make the decision to support organ, tissue, and eye donation.”

Mark Johnson affirms her statement, remembering the decision he, and his children Marshall and Paige, faced last December. “We can all talk about it and share what we think (about organ donation), but ultimately the choice comes down to the family.”

The Johnson family knew how Carolyn felt about giving the gift of life, so when the social worker from the transplant team came to the hospital, “It was full steam ahead,” recalled Mark. “We knew that we would do whatever it took to make it successful.” He spoke to that same social worker at the ceremony. She remembered the family, and inquired about Paige, who was studying social work.

The Johnsons have reached out to the recipients of Carolyn’s organs via a letter, a process mediated and kept anonymous during initial communications. Donor families are allowed to share first names only and may include a photo. “We wanted to let them know who Carolyn was, what she meant to us, and that we’re wishing them all the best.  If that’s where the conversation ends, that’s okay. If it leads to meeting people, I would love to pursue it. Our door is open.”

The Johnsons know for certain that both of Carolyn’s kidneys and her liver were given to recipients, but they won’t know exactly how many lives were impacted by her eyes and tissues at this time. “Three people got the best Christmas gift they ever could have hoped for,” Mark said proudly.

In the months since Carolyn’s passing, the Johnsons have done a lot of adjusting. “Those shoes we just can’t fill. My focus is on the kids. We’re hanging onto one another,” Mark explains. “I can’t put it into words. Am I sad? Absolutely. The future is different now. So how do I deal with it? By remembering her and honoring her. I am tickled pink to be able to talk and share her story.”

One opportunity the Johnsons had recently was at a boat parade at a fourth of July party on the lake. “The theme of our boat was ‘Donate Life.’ The goal was to remember our hero, to share the message that her life was not in vain.” Johnson printed up fliers with Carolyn’s story and passed them out prior to the parade so that people would know who the float was honoring. “Her story is going to save many lives down the road. I want to make her proud. We’re going to do that by being good stewards of her memory.”