The Nascar race at Mid-Ohio last Saturday brought large crowds, cameras, and one winner to Mansfield. It also featured one car in particular, driven by Joey Gase: colorfully-decorated and showcasing handprints and photos. The photos were of organ donors, and the handprints were those of the donors’ family members.
OhioHealth invited Gase and family members of two local donors to come share their stories and place handprints on Gase’s car.
The donors pictured on the car included Jackie Ronk, Reggie Miller, and Gase’s mother, Mary Gase.
The event began with a few words from Vinson M. Yates, the President of OhioHealth Mansfield and Shelby Hospitals.
“I’m not foolish enough to think that car out there isn’t exciting,” Yates laughed. “But I’m also smart enough to know that the real point of today is the work that Lifeline of Ohio does for so many.”
“In the past year, we were privileged to work with 29 families whose loved ones become heroes of donation,” he continued. “Over the past five years, we have worked with countless family members to honor their decisions to help others by facilitating the gifts of life and of tissue. We have helped give these gifts at OhioHealth from 88 tissue donors and the gift of life from 17 organ donors.”
Yates went on to explain how these countless family members have helped others, and just how much of an impact these donors have.
“These statistics are more than just numbers. They are lives saved because someone made a decision to help others. Many individuals now have a day to possibly live, dream or succeed.”
Sarah Smith, Jackie’s sister, and Martha Miller, Reggie’s mother, shared their stories of their family members’ donations.
“My big sister Jackie was a force,” said Smith. “She was an amazing mom to three boys, whom she lived her entire life around. She was kind and caring. She loved to help others and would do anything for anyone.”
Smith went on to tearfully share a personal side of her sister. “She was a total girlie girl. She loved to shop, especially for shoes, and her nickname was the Shoe Queen. She was my best friend. She was my other half.”
Smith then shared her heartbreaking story of losing Jackie unexpectedly.
“At 37, Jackie had so much to look forward to. Her marriage, raising her sons, continuing to give back to her community, and helping others. Sadly, that was not meant to be for my sister. At the end of January 2017, Jackie was found to have a brain hemorrhage and was rushed into surgery. Tragically, she never recovered, and on January 28, 2017, Jackie was declared brain dead.”
Smith explained her family’s journey of deciding to give the gift of life through donation for her sister.
“As a family, we discussed the fact that my sister was a registered organ, eye and tissue donor, and we knew immediately that she would want us to honor her decision. While we had been praying for a miracle for her to pull through this medical emergency, we knew others were praying for their family members to receive a lifesaving transplant they so desperately needed. Our family felt confident Jackie spent so much of her time helping others that this was a fitting way to cement her legacy through donation.”
Their decision to honor Jackie in this way reached far and wide.
“My sister saved five lives that day,” said Smith.”She healed countless others through the gifts of her corneas and tissue. She then went one step further and donated her aortic valves to be used in dialysis research.”
“Donation for my family has been the one positive thing that we can focus on. Jackie gave us a gift too through donation, and that is the gift of hope.”
Martha Miller, Reggie’s mother, shared a look into the life of Reggie and of their donation journey.
“My daughter Reggie was best known as a badass,” said Miller. “Trust me, I tried to find another word, but there really isn’t one. She was aggressive and knew what she wanted in life, and she went after it full force.”
Reggie attended the University of Denver, where she studied international business and accounting analytics.
“Although she had high career goals, she especially excelled at Rugby,” said Miller. “She was an inspiration to her teammates and went on to become Player of the Year, never having played sports in her life.”
Miller also shared a look into Reggie’s personal side.
“While she carried a tough exterior, she was one of the most sentimental people I have ever known. Her smile was so warm it could melt ice cream. She was a force of kindness, determination, charm and brilliance.”
Miller also shared the tragic story of Reggie’s passing.
“She was about to turn 19 and had her whole life ahead of her. It’s hard to imagine this world will never know the full extent of who Reggie was becoming.”
Like Jackie Ronk’s family, as Smith shared, Miller also shared a story of hope amidst a great tragedy for her family.
“There was hope in the fact that she was a registered organ donor. On June 16, 2018, my daughter saved four lives through organ donation. Our tragedy brought hope to four other families. She is now helping four complete strangers to lead full and productive lives.”
One life Reggie saved was a father in his 60’s - on Father’s Day.
“She was a great leader, not only in rugby, but also by taking the initiative to register as an organ donor. My determined, aggressive, kindhearted daughter gave such beautiful gifts at the end of her life.”
Gase also shared his story of his mother’s passing and her gift of donation, and he explained why this journey has had such an impact on his life and career.
“I know firsthand how losing a loved one can be. The reason why I’m so passionate about organ, eye and tissue donation is because I was thrown into it,” said Gase. “I was 18, getting ready to graduate high school, getting ready to go to prom. I actually asked out my prom date that same night that my mom passed away of a brain aneurysm.”
Gase explained that his family had never discussed this issue before, but his family knew that because of his mother’s kindness, compassion, and caring in her life that she would want to help in any way she could, even after her own life had ended.
“She talked about how she always wanted to donate blood, but she actually didn’t meet the minimum weight to donate. She always talked about how that bothered her. So we knew if she could no longer continue her life, she wanted to do whatever she could to help others continue theirs.”
Gase said that the family later found her driver’s license and discovered that she was a registered donor.
“Knowing that we made the right decision was huge to us,” said Gase.
“We thought she may be able to help one or two, maybe three people. Later, we found out she helped to improve and save the lives of 66 people.”
Gase’s mother’s journey and gifts of donation is why he is so passionate about organ, eye and tissue donation. This is why Gase chose to feature donors on the front of his car at the race this past weekend, where thousands would see the photos of those who gave the greatest gift one can give.
“Ever since then, I wanted to do whatever I could to not only raise awareness for organ, eye and tissue donation, but also to honor all those affected by it, like my mom.”
After Gase’s speech, a moment of silence was held for the donors, and a prayer was said. The families were then invited to see the reveal of their family members’ photos on the front of Gase’s car and place their handprints around their pictures.
Two of the younger family members helped Gase unveil the car and their loved ones’ photos. They were also the first handprints placed on the car.
There was one theme present throughout the entire event: hope.
Both families expressed repeatedly that hope was getting them through their grief. How their loved ones giving the gift of life and helping others was the one good thing that came out of these tragedies.
“This is the only positive thing we have after losing her,” said Smith.
“I’m grateful that something good came out of her tragedy,” said Miller.
To become a registered organ donor and to learn more about donation, visit http://lifelineofohio.org/become-a-donor/how-to-register/.