Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Speaking of Death

Years ago during a particularly hectic speaking schedule, a woman followed me out of the conference hall where I’d just given a keynote address at a regional Red Cross meeting.  I was rushing off to catch my next flight, but she seemed determined to have a word with me. She looked as if she’d been crying, even a bit angry, and I wondered if I’d somehow offended her with some of my, shall we say, offbeat humor.

“That story,” she said, gripping my arm. “The one about Jenny Eller…”

Jenny’s story was – and still is – one I tell often, not because it’s got such a happy ending, but precisely because it doesn’t

Jenny was seventeen when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Decisions regarding college scholarships – Princeton or Berkeley? – were superseded by chemo, blood transfusions, and appointments with the oncologist. As Jenny’s need for blood grew, so too did her desire to give back. She volunteered with her local blood center, helping them recruit more donors, speaking at community events, and making thank-you calls to those who’d given an hour of their time to donate blood.

Years after her diagnosis, in a hospital room filled with friends and family, Jenny lost her battle with leukemia. She never did get that college degree, but she did get four more years that she wouldn’t have otherwise gotten had it not been for all those blood components - red blood cells, platelets, and plasma - that supported her body throughout the cancer treatments.

On the night she died, Jenny’s father, Dean, promised to carry on her work with the blood center. Within days of burying his daughter, he spoke in her place at a luncheon to recruit blood donors. Four years and many blood center talks later, Dean left his career as a mortgage banker and took over as CEO of the blood center. And two years ago, the new Jenny Eller Donation Center opened its doors to the public. More than fifteen years after her passing, Jenny continues to have an impact on others, not the least of which, me.

While some wonderful, in fact inspiring, things have come about as a result of Jenny’s death, I’ll bet her parents would trade them all for more time with her here on earth. But death is a part of the “business” I'm in.  Not everyone gets the second chance that I – and many others – did.  Not everyone gets to shrug off their need for blood transfusions as "that time I was sick.” Not everyone gets a happily-ever-after.

I wondered if the woman who’d followed me into the hallway and was still gripping my arm was going to scold me for highlighting this harsh reality in what was billed as a “motivational” talk. I braced myself for whatever she had to say. 

“I was sitting in there listening to your story and the other stories you were sharing, and I found myself getting upset – even angry – at the unfairness of it all.”  Then she started crying. “I lost my daughter to leukemia a few months ago,” she continued.  “They tried everything, including regular transfusions, but in the end she still died.  I guess hearing all those blood recipient stories with happy endings really started to make me feel like I’d been ripped off. But then you shared Jenny’s story and I realized I’m not alone. So thank you for doing that.  I really needed to hear her story – and how her parents responded to that loss.”

Death is the one experience in life that we all have in common.  Ultimately, there’s no escaping it.  In my line of work (heading up the Foundation for America's Blood Centers), we certainly hope to help patients defer death – to give families more time together to build more memories and share more joy. So I'll continue to fight the good fight, but I'll never shy away from sharing the heartbreaks that are inevitable.  I owe it to all those who’ve lost a “Jenny.”

Jennifer Eller
1974 - 1995

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Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover copies are available at, or signed copies can be ordered at Happy reading!

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