But what are you supposed to do when a full-grown man starts to crack because he is talking about his dead teenage son?
Or how about the mother who knows her daughter will die if someone doesn’t come through with a kidney soon?
This was the scene of the Donate Life section of the Rose Parade staging area in Pasadena this week, where dozens of people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of young people all stood in a big line, clutching flowers and trying to make sure they were in the right place for what has come to be called the Rose Ceremony.
I covered the ceremony Thursday, and I brought my 13-year-old daughter along, partly because I was so busy I needed help, and partly because I wanted her to see something beautiful.
Each year since 2004, a coalition of donor networks have entered a float into the Rose Parade. This year’s float will feature images of 72 people who donated organs or tissue. On top of the float will ride 28 people who are alive because they received another person’s body parts. During the Rose Ceremony, family members place roses into the float in honor of their deceased relatives.
This year’s float “…One More Day,” features clocks running backward, which represent the time received by organ recipients and the longing by donors’ families to see their loved ones.
In a coincidence that nearly defies mathematical possibility, four of the 72 images on the Donate Life Rose Parade Float will be of men from Downey.
Originally, the plan was to meet the Woodford family, one of the four families from the city whose loved ones will be depicted on the float. Their son Christopher Paturzo III died in 2007 after a car backed in front of his motorcycle.
When he was a teenager, Paturzo did drugs. His stepfather Earl Woodford remembered going again and again to pick up his stepson after Paturzo had gotten in trouble. He and Chris’s mother, Judi, worried all the time.
But in his early 30s, Paturzo changed, his family said. He got serious about his faith. He participated in the sports ministry at Calvary Chapel South Bay. He had a job at a business that did work for ConocoPhillips. He had a nice girlfriend.
Earl and his stepson even played on the same softball team. Chris played shortstop and Earl pitched.
“He was a fantastic ballplayer,” Earl said.
The family liked to attend a weekly car show in Paramount and then get Mexican food at Casa Gamino, Chris’ favorite restaurant. On an evening in 2007, Chris ate at Casa Gamino with his parents and his sister’s family, and he drove away on his motorcycle.
After all those hard times, life seemed almost perfect.
About six days later, the family was sitting around the hospital at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood wondering if Chris would want his tissue donated. Chris was brain dead.
They gave the doctors the word, and the physicians harvested Chris’ tissue.
Soon afterward, Judi learned that her son three years earlier had signed up at the DMV to be an organ donor.
“I said, ‘Yes!’” she remembered yelling when she heard the news. Tissue donations typically help about 50 people.
The Woodfords walked away to get roses for the ceremony, and a short woman with blonde hair tapped my shoulder.
“Did I hear you say Downey?” she asked as she stood with a young woman an a teenage boy. “I went to Warren.”
I told her I was a reporter. She said her husband was a donor.
“Do you want to talk about it with me?” I asked.
I know she wanted to, because she paused. Then her lips pursed and her eyes got wet. The boy, I assume it was her son, put his hand on her shoulder. I put my hand on her other one for a second, somewhere between a hug and a pat.
She shook her head no. I said something clumsy that wasn’t quite right for the situation, and my daughter and I walked away.
I interviewed a family from La Habra for another paper I work for, and then I went inside the tent to snap pictures. I interviewed a woman from Pasadena for another paper. (I know. It’s a complex web of employment. Don’t try to understand it.) The woman’s daughter five years earlier received a kidney from a woman she never met. Now that kidney was failing.
We hugged and parted ways.
I walked outside and saw from the corner of my eye that another person was approaching me.
I turned around and saw Leiauna Anderson. I had talked to her earlier. She had told me that complications from her stillborn baby nearly killed her in 2006 while her husband was away on a ski trip.
After she went to the hospital, her body was shutting down and she was hours from death. After an emergency cesarean section on the fetus, doctors installed a giant liver in her as a stopgap measure until they could shave it down or find one that fit. Leiauna, who is 5 feet, 1 inch tall, spent three days with a huge liver hanging out of her body covered by a synthetic sheet. She almost died a few more times. And she finally got a second, smaller liver.
She survived, but she learned she probably would never have a baby.
“If I would have gone to bed that night, I would have died,” she said, remembering it was her baby’s lack of motion that first made her suspicious something was wrong and convinced her to rush to the hospital.
“In a way, the baby dying saved my life.”
After the transplant, she spent months in the hospital. She was so sick, she couldn’t hold her head up. Her arm was scarred like a rocky canyon after a chemical infiltrated her skin due to one of several medical complications that almost killed her.
On Nov. 24, 2008, her sister in law, who was acting as a surrogate, gave birth to Leiauna’s son, Rex.
She even met the family of the Sheila Donnelly, the 19-year-old woman whose liver was now inside her. Sheila died in a motorbike accident.
“That day we met, it was just a lot of tears,” she said of parents Terry and Pam Donnelly. “He leaned over and whispered in my ear that he felt like he was hugging his own daughter.”
Leiauna grew up in Lynwood and lived in Brentwood. I didn’t work for any newspapers in those places, so I wasn’t sure I would get to use her story.
But when she found me the second time, she told me she heard I was working on something for a publication in Downey.
“I went to Pius X High School in Downey, which is now Pius X/St. Matthias,” she said.
Right then, the Woodfords emerged from the tent. Judi said goodbye and gave me a big hug. Earl gave me the kind of firm handshake you would expect from a softball pitcher.
Then I saw another man with four picture buttons on his shirt. They were donors. He was a recipient.
His name was Dave Hollon from Fullerton and looked to be about 50.
He grew up in Lakewood and went to a little school in Downey, Pius X.
“Hey, do you know…” he interrupted me.
“Yes. Leiauna. We met last year at this same event,” he said.
He an Leiauna rode on last year’s Donate Life float.
Then he mentioned that his brother Mike Hollon worked for Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Industry.
The name sounded familiar. I remembered an email forwarded to me by Downey Councilman Fernando Vasquez. It was originally written by Mike Hollon, and it mentioned how so many people from Downey were involved int this year’s Donate Life float. It’s what first tipped me off to this story.
This was getting weird. Everyone kept mentioning Downey.
Then Dave Hollon told me that he had his brother Mike’s kidney inside him.
He also got a pancreas from a 16-year-old girl, Lacey Rodia, 16, of Murietta, who had died in a car crash.
The functioning pancreas cured the juvenile onset diabetes that had ravaged his body.
“It’s a miracle,” he said.
He had heard about the Woodfords.
“It means so much to me to see them hear,” he said.
I talked to one more person for a different newspaper. He told me some things he didn’t want printed, and he started balling.
I hugged him good and hard.
I guess 112,000 people are waiting for organ donations, according to One Legacy, the donor network group that is the primary agency that coordinates the Rose Float.
For the families involved in organ donation, I think the experience is akin to war. Death lurks over every conversation, but so does gratitude and solace. The families commiserate in a deep, deep way. Leiauna told me that many of those who receive organs go on with life and don’t get involved in advocacy. But the families of the donors seem more motivated to tell their stories, even if they are sad or sometimes a little shameful.
I don’t know how to properly wrap this up, so I’ll just say that I never expected all the families involved in Donate Life to be so candid about their loved ones. Thanks for the kindness, and the hugs.