FORT WAYNE – Rhonda Berger follows a simple motto – “If you’d be willing to take, you need to be willing to give.”
But when her 19-year-old daughter, Jennifer, died in a tragic apartment fire, Berger learned what it meant to give all.
“All of my kids knew when they were going to get their driver’s licenses that they were going to be asked whether they wanted to be a donor,” she said. “They never hesitated; … never once thinking you’d be faced with having to make that decision for real.”
On Jan. 23, 2009, a fire broke out in the apartment where Berger’s daughter, Jennifer Spurgeon, was living while attending International Business College in Fort Wayne.
Jennifer and her roommates Renae Patton, 18, and Lara Punches, 19, had taken refuge from the smoke that filled their second-story apartment at The Willows of Coventry.
All three women later died of smoke inhalation. All three were also registered organ donors.
There are more than 116,000 people on the waiting list for a transplant and 1,469 of them are Indiana residents, according to the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization.
Of those, 1,298 are awaiting kidney transplants, 48 are in need of a heart transplant and 89 need a liver. The remaining patients need lungs, pancreases or intestines, according to organ procurement data.
Last year, 532 people received organ transplants as a result of 154 organ donors in Indiana.
On Saturday, Berger will meet with some of the people who received her daughter’s organs during the Show Us Your Heart 5K Walk/Run.
The event will benefit the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization. But perhaps more importantly, it will give Berger the chance to have the recipients of her daughter’s organs together for the first time.
Louann Patton, mother of Renae Patton, said her daughter’s decision to be a donor was never something Renae thought twice about.
“It’s just fitting with her personality because she was always very giving,” Patton said. Lara Punches, the third woman who died in the fire, was also a registered donor, said her mother, Martha Punches.
“Paul (her father) and I are very firm believers in the donor program, and when Lara got her license she said, ‘Mom, I’m going to put down to be a full-body donor.’ Of course, we never thought it would ever happen.” Punches said.
Since her daughter’s death, Berger has become an advocate for organ procurement, giving talks at schools, spreading the word at events and even sharing her story while out to eat at a restaurant or grocery shopping.
Along the way, she has heard it all. Every excuse, every concern and every myth people have ever been told about donating an organ.
“I want to have an open casket and if I donate, I’ll have to be cremated.”
That’s not the case, she said.
“How will they know if I’m dead?”
Doctors will make certain, she explained.
“Hospitals have a list of everyone who is a donor and if you’re on the list, they won’t try as hard to save you.”
That’s simply not true, she replied.
Once she finishes eliminating fears, Berger has the chance to share the part of Jennifer’s story that has changed her life for the good – her newfound family.
The moment when she got the letter from the wife of the 54-year-old man who had Jennifer’s liver.
The first time she met Zac Stanley, the young man who received one of her daughter’s kidneys.
Or the many laughs and tears she’s shared in the past several years with Betty – the outgoing, outrageous and outstanding 64-year-old woman who received Jennifer’s second kidney.
This part of Berger’s story is where the tragedy turns into something more positive.
“Otherwise, how I would look at it is that the day that she died would have been the day that her life and everything else, stopped,” she said. But this way, she said, Jennifer lives on.