The sweatshirt Joyce Willig wore Thursday spoke of her life experience: "Organ donors are miracle makers."
Willig told Augusta Preparatory Day School Upper School students about her experience as one of the world's first successful liver transplant recipients.
Willig has visited more than 430 schools and more than 164,000 students, touting the benefits of organ donation and encouraging students to become organ donors.
The stage still makes her nervous, said Willig, of Fairfield, Conn.
"But I do this because it is the only way I know to thank the 16-year-old boy who 24 years ago gave my life back to me," Willig said.
Jan Hicks, the head of Augusta Prep's Upper School, said she invited Willig to encourage students to think about organ donation and talk about the decision with their families before the dangerous time from spring to fall, when families travel much more for vacations.
"It is the summer vacation," said Hicks, who was formerly the commander of Fort Gordon. "In the Army, we call it ... the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the 100 Days of Death. It is just a deadly time because there are just so many people on the road."
Hicks said she wanted students, many of whom are getting driver's licenses and permits, to consider organ donation because it is not something everyone thinks about when they are healthy.
Willig said that on her 32nd birthday she felt she had everything anybody could ever want, including her health, a college education, a good job, a husband and two children, then 4 and 6 years old. A doctor told Willig she had less than a year to live when he diagnosed her with a slow-progressing, incurable, fatal liver disease.
"Hope is what life is all about," said Willig, whose liver finally failed in 1982, 11 years after her diagnosis. The doctors offered Willig's family one last option, an experimental anti-rejection drug.
Willig showed students a photo of a 16-year-old West Virginia boy, named Jerome, who died in a car accident. His family decided that if his organs could save someone else's life, they should be allowed to do so, Willig said.
Willig has since met and become close with the boy's family.
"He and his family are a part of my life and my heart forever, and I will never, ever, ever be able to repay them for the gift that they gave me," Willig said. "I cannot give them back their son, but if I can't bring Jerome back to life, I can give his life meaning."
Willig told students she hopes none of them ever have to become organ donors.
"But I also want you to know what it is to cherish life, to be generous, to be kind, to be giving and to know that in the event of an accident, if we no longer have our own lives, we do have a life and future to share. We all have within us that gift of organ donation."
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