Remembering Kelly Donovan: ‘Strong, persuasive, kind. That’s her legacy.’

Kelly Donovan’s mom, Rita Nonneman, recounts her experience as a donor mom and the love, grief, and pride she shares for her youngest daughter who gave the gift of life in December 2016.

Editor’s note: Rita –– and the Donovan family –– are a passionate, sharp-witted and honest bunch. The language used in this story reflects these beautiful traits. (Okay, the f*** word is used. But only twice.)

 

Kelly, in her signature jersey and gold skirt, before an Ultimate Frisbee competition.

“Don’t f*** up.”

At the Donovan’s request, these words were read aloud in Kelly’s honor, just moments before she gave life to four people and healed 70 more through the donation of her organs, eyes, bones and tissue.

Rita felt these words were exactly what her daughter, witty and selfless, would say in the high-stakes situation. The words of an Ultimate Frisbee champion; a warrior. But also the words of the same twenty-something adult who begged her mom to drive two hours to bring her childhood stuffy “Baby Blue Dog” and rub her head that throbbed from an unrelenting migraine.

She was powerful. Persuasive. Sensitive and generous, too. She would want as many people as possible to benefit from her misfortune. That was Kelly Donovan; daughter, sister, partner, athlete, coach, mentor and organ donor.

An undiagnosed heart condition

Kelly had a hereditary heart problem that was made worse by physical activity. As a lifelong athlete, she had no knowledge of her condition. At the age of 30, Kelly collapsed on the field at Ingraham High School in Seattle after coaching an Ultimate Frisbee practice. She was later declared brain dead.

Only two years prior, Kelly discussed organ donation with her family at the kitchen table. She was inspired by the kidney transplant her dad’s cousin received.

“How could anyone be so selfish that if they knew something was going to happen to them, they wouldn’t donate their organs?” she asked. “You’re not going to be using them [organs] anyway, so why not help somebody else?”

So, when Kelly’s parents, Rita and Bill, faced the worst news of their lives, four families received the best news of theirs. And only days before Christmas.

Left to right: Kelly’s sister, Hope; dad, Bill; and 2-year-old Kelly. This is Rita’s favorite photo –– “De Flating of Da Boat” –– taken at Madeline Island on Lake Superior in Wisconsin. The Donovans visited Madeline Island each year; inflating the boat when they arrived and deflating it together on their last day. Many years later, Kelly transformed the boat into a sculpture –– a life-sized jacket and pants she titled “Protection.” She earned “Best in Show Sculpture” at her senior art exhibit at Drake University. Today, it hangs in Kelly’s bedroom of her family home.

Kelly’s legacy was clear

“Kelly had given us a clear-cut, emphatic wish to help others,” said Rita. “Her donating gave our family hope –– hope that others would have the merriest Christmas of all and pass that love on to others.”

Donor family advocates from LifeCenter Northwest walked Kelly’s family through the entire donation process. Bill and Rita were eager to absorb every moment, every detail –– from testing, medical history, lifestyle questions and even news of potential organ recipients. They wanted to be included in all conversations.

“Kelly wasn’t there,” Rita adds through tears. “She wasn’t going to open her eyes, but as parents, you’re still looking out for them.”

Rita talks about the days that led up to Kelly’s organ and tissue donation. She says her family cherishes humor and they laugh often. They continued to share stories and laugh together at Kelly’s bedside. Yes, laughed. Like a family who was grieving the loss of their loved one. The donation and care teams laughed (and cried) right along with them.

And, when Kelly was wheeled to the operating room, her parents insisted on a post-operative briefing from the surgical teams. The outcome? Well, they didn’t f*** up. Three ambulances were dispatched from Harborview Medical Center that day, and four people received the life-saving organ they were waiting for. More than 70 people benefited from Kelly’s donation of eyes, bones, nerves and tissue.

Years later, Kelly’s memory lives on

This week marks four years since Kelly collapsed on that field. Rita shares that her family continues to find comfort in Kelly’s legacy.

“Our hearts are heavy with the loss of Kel, but heavier yet that she lost out on more time and more life experiences,” Rita shares. “She deserved so much more. We do find comfort in her legacies. The students she touched. The teammates and opponents she played with. The Alzheimers victims she played charity football for and created art pieces for auction to raise research funds. The Donovan Award recipients. And, especially, her organ and tissue recipients.”

Kelly’s lung recipient is Dori Rosenberg who now shares an “intense bond” with the Donovans. Thanks to Kelly’s gift of life, Dori has cherished many adventures over the last few years and even paid a recent visit to Mt. Rainier.

Dori enjoys nature and celebrates her strength on a Mt. Rainier hike.