Giving the gift of life

Two North State women open up about the organ donations that gave new life to them and their families

Mackenzie Peterson, an infant heart-transplant recipient, plays and laughs in her north Chico home with her mom, Sue Peterson.

Mackenzie Peterson, an infant heart-transplant recipient, plays and laughs in her north Chico home with her mom, Sue Peterson.

photo by kjerstin wood

Support the cause:
Go to to learn more about organ donation, and to fill out a form detailing exactly what kinds of tissues and organs you are willing to donate. Donate Life America’s site also gives information about the extensive counseling and evaluations by various doctors and social workers that are involved with organ donation, as well as how organ recipients deal with the emotions that come with a second chance at life.

Visit to “like” the Donate Life Ambassadors.
Go to to keep up with Sue Peterson’s ongoing blog about her daughter, A Second Heart.

“June 14, 2010, was either the day I was going to die or the day I was going to be saved,” said Amy Bourke in a recent interview at her home in McCloud. That was the day when Bourke received a new liver after she went into a coma due to liver failure.

Bourke’s eyes sporadically tear up while talking about the liver transplant that has so far given her two more years of life with her husband Jarrod and their daughters, 6-year-old Morgan and 10-year-old Madison.

The Bourkes know on the most fundamental level the value of organ donations. So do the parents of 3-year-old Mackenzie “Bean” Peterson.

She was born on Feb. 19, 2009—two months too early—and as a result suffered respiratory problems. This led to a doctor’s discovering her heart was five times too large for her body and was putting pressure on her lung, explained her mother, Sue Peterson, recently.

Mackenzie’s transplant took place when she was just 4 months old. Her new heart came from another infant whose parents made the decision to donate life to a stranger after their child passed away.

“For someone to have that forethought…” said Peterson, her voice trailing off. She said she couldn’t imagine making that decision after going through such a traumatic situation.

Mackenzie holds up a stuffed toy high above her head while she rocks happily back and forth on her rocking horse in her north Chico home, her mom smiling and laughing with her.

Neither the Petersons nor the Bourkes know who their donors were, and the donors’ families have chosen not to respond to letters that Bourke and Peterson wrote to their respective donors. The letters thanked the donors, explained the organ recipients’ situations and were sent in the hope they would help the donor families understand what their gifts meant.

Many people have misconceptions about what is involved with giving the gift of a donated organ, such as the notion that doctors rush to harvest organs and are not concerned with reviving certain patients if they have been identified as an organ donor. That’s why people like Peterson, director of the Speech and Debate team and a teacher at Chico State, and Bourke, who runs the after-school program at McCloud Elementary School, have become Donate Life ambassadors via OneLegacy, a California-based Donate Life organization (go to to learn more).

As ambassadors, Bourke and Peterson help educate others on the complex and emotional process of donating and receiving organs by speaking at events in the North State and attending donor sign-up drives.

Amy Bourke displays her Y-shaped scar—a reminder of the liver transplant that saved her life—on the front steps of her home in McCloud.

photo by kjerstin wood

Peterson pointed out that most people are not aware of how layered and varied the process can be. Bourke explained that a number of doctors and social workers must take into consideration such things as how many family members one has, whether one has insurance, and of course how sick one is in order to determine eligibility for organ donation.

Doctors and social workers are very detailed to make sure that the recipient will be able to take care of the organ by being able to pay for medication, and also that the person receiving the organ will have adequate emotional, financial and physical support from her or his family members, Bourke added.

Peterson has even talked with trauma nurses, educating them on the entire process so that they know how to identify when someone is a potential donor. She says this encourages the nurses to become organ donors as well.

Although not a hospital at which transplants are performed, Enloe Medical Center began promoting organ-donor sign-ups in July 2011, partnering with California Transplant Donor Network, in an effort to get more employees to register as donors, said Enloe spokeswoman Christina Chavira.

Along with the new five-story Magnolia Tower, Enloe also gained a new Donate Life flag this year, which is lowered to half-staff for 48 hours after an organ donation “as a symbol of gratitude to the donor and family,” Chavira said in an email to the CN&R.

Enloe has won several awards, including one for having more than 75 percent of eligible donors actually donating organs that ended up saving someone’s life. The hospital also received two Medals of Honor in 2009 from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

“Specifically the Medals of Honor award hospitals for achieving and sustaining national goals for donation,” said Chavira.

As of Aug. 1, 2012, Enloe has had 20 tissue donations, and eight organ donations from two separate donors, according to the California Transplant Donor Network.

There are currently 114,840 organ-donation candidates on the waiting list in the United States, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network website, Of those, 92,811 people specifically need a kidney; most people have two kidneys and could donate one and be perfectly healthy.

“The problem isn’t that so many are waiting on transplant lists; it’s that not enough people are registered to donate,” Peterson said, shaking her head.

Mackenzie most likely will have to receive another heart transplant when she is a teenager, or possibly as late as her early 20s, if she is lucky, said her mother. Peterson and her husband, Jason, plan to be open with Mackenzie about her situation to help her understand how important it is to take care of herself.

Bourke will have to take several medications every day for the rest of her life, and is hyper-aware of any minor cold or virus because of her weakened immune system. But that doesn’t stop her from working and spending time with family—and even running in the 5k Color Run in San Francisco this past July.

“The worry about something going wrong is always there, but it fades as time goes on,” she said.