“You don’t ever expect it to happen to you,” says Ellen Smoll, as she sits on the sofa in her Ephrata home. “Immediately, I jumped in the car and drove like a maniac.”
It was June 2012 when Ellen received a phone call at work that would change her life. “I was kind of surprised that they interrupted me out of a conference. I went out, and it ended up being the hospital telling me to come immediately.” Ellen’s 20 year-old son, Evan, had been in a terrible motorcycle accident, and the outlook wasn’t good.
“I used to volunteer at the hospital,” she explains, “and I knew that when the chaplain came out, it was not a good situation. So when I went up to the desk and they said I had to wait for the chaplain, immediately I knew, and my heart sank.” Ellen learned that Evan had multiple serious injuries: a brain injury, broken ribs, a broken femur, broken wrists, and massive internal bleeding. She was allowed to see him for only a few short minutes before he was rushed into surgery.
“Life really changed in that moment,” she says. “You hold your kids so dear to you, and you just think nothing’s ever going to happen to them… we were just waiting… and praying.” Unfortunately, doctors gave Ellen the news that Evan was brain dead. Having two other children, she tried valiantly to stay strong and be a good support for them while dealing with her own grief. Not long after hearing Evan’s grim diagnosis, Ellen was introduced to Gift of Life, an organization that coordinates and facilitates matching organ donors with waiting patients.
“They asked the question, ‘Would you like to donate his organs?’ and to me, it was absolutely 100%.” At that point, Evan was on life support, but his brain was not working, and machines were the only things keeping his heart going and his organs running. Ellen and her family were allowed to stay with Evan as doctors and nurses rushed in and out, taking samples and tests to find matches for Evan’s organs. “The next day, the doctors flew in that were going to take his organs… his ‘gifts,’ is what I call them… and we said our goodbyes. It was a very tough time in life,” Ellen says sadly.
What Ellen didn’t expect, however, was how deeply her son’s organ donation would affect her personally. Not only did it help her own healing knowing that Evan’s organs lived on in others, but hearing the stories of the people helped by Evan’s gifts inspired a new passion in her life. She even wrote and received letters from the organ recipients.
“His heart went to a man in his 30s, his liver to a woman in her 30s, his left kidney to a man in his 50s, his pancreas and right kidney to a woman in her 50s, his lungs were recovered and sent on for medical research. He donated bone that helped 50 to 100 patients to be treated. He gave his skin, as well, for women with breast cancer or burn victims. His corneas restored the sight of a 22-year-old male and a 94-year-old woman. To me, that was amazing.”
As years passed after Evan’s death, Ellen became more and more involved in the Gift of Life and Donate Life organ donation organizations. So much so, in fact, that in 2015 she decided to meet with doctors about donating her own kidney. Originally she had hoped to help a friend with her donation, but it turned out she didn’t match blood types with that person. Undeterred, Ellen continued with her plans to donate and was matched up with 23-year-old woman from Atlanta. Her kidney donation surgery took place in 2017, and was a complete success. “So many people ask, ‘Why?’” she says. “It started with Evan and how he helped so many people. There are so many people in need, and if you’re healthy and can do it, I say go for it!”
Not only has Ellen inspired others to donate organs, including her sister, she now makes presentations at high schools and does speaking engagements, trying to get the word out about the importance of “checking the box” and donating organs.
“When you die, you don’t need them. There are so many people waiting. Just look at your life and how fulfilling it has always been, and think of other people who are not able to do that daily, and give them that gift.”