It might be something of an overstatement to say that Brent Nichols is immortal. But his death of a heart attack at the too-early age of 40 was not the end of his life. He lives on in the family he left behind. He lives on in the people who received the organs from his donated body. And he lives on in the poignant song his wife Bonnie wrote as both a tribute to the man she loved and as a way to help the rest of us understand that whatever value we bring to this world need not vanish when we pass from it.
Bonnie is director of organizational experience at Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, Alaska. She's also a singer-songwriter whose work has been featured on two children's albums that were finalists for Grammy Awards. She contacted me a few weeks ago after I wrote a column lamenting the fact that far too many Americans go without organ or tissue transplants that could transform or even extend their lives simply because most people fail to take the few steps to ensure their bodies are given to transplant programs upon their deaths.
When Brent Nichols died suddenly in March 1996, Bonnie donated his body to Life Alaska, an organ and tissue donation organization. She wrote a note describing a little bit about who her husband was and asked that it be passed along to each of the recipients. And she wondered if she and her family would ever learn the results of their decision.
It didn't take long.
"Before the funeral, a man in California had Brent's corneas and could see," Bonnie told me. "I spoke later to a 45-year-old Fed Ex employee in Texas who got a heart valve, and then I read about a 6-month-old baby in Philadelphia who received a life-saving procedure with one of his arteries."
When Bonnie and her husband's sister, Debi Honer, received a call from the man from Texas, they also spoke with his sister, who happened to be a bone marrow recipient and understood full well how transplants can change a life.
"It was a humbling experience to hear their voices and to hear him share that he had received a pig valve that failed before receiving Brent's valve," Bonnie says. "I joked that if he started coming up with new swear words while working in the garage he would know that was my husband."
Bonnie also found comfort in her music, a crystalline mix of folk, country and Gospel. In addition to writing and recording, she performs with other women in a local folk group, and she and some of her hospital colleagues formed a Thresholds Choir in which they sing in the doorways of patients' rooms. "It might be someone who is dying or a child who needs comforting," she says. "It's very therapeutic. It cheers you up, gives you new energy and it's fun."
Bonnie's songs contemplate difficult issues we all struggle with today, from natural disasters to watching young Americans go off to war to the need to slow down and reconnect with loved ones. Several have a health care theme. On her website is a free download of "Anything Is Possible," which she wrote when her daughter was diagnosed with MS and then with malignant melanoma. Her daughter has now been symptom-free for six years and teaches yoga several times a week. Bonnie also has a son and four grandchildren and in 2006 married Mike Haggerty, a controller at Central Peninsula Hospital.
The song she wrote after Brent's death, "New Beginning," is included on a CD called "I've Got Something to Say," which you can hear samples of on her website.
"New Beginning" is simple, direct and, I think, inspiring. This is how it starts:
"A heart beats again
A blind man will see
A second chance is given to a family
And you're born again
In the cries of a baby."