The Day Katherine Heigl Became an Organ Donation Advocate
Advocacy Few understand just how deeply the compassion that comes with being a donor matters more than the film and TV star and her mother, Nancy Heigl.
If you’re a “Grey’s Anatomy” fan, you can most likely recall Katherine Heigl’s role as Izzie Stevens, an eager surgical intern-turned-resident who passionately fought to save her patients’ lives. What you may not know about the award-winning actress is Heigl’s real-life passion for amplifying awareness and education around organ donation.
A tragic start
After losing her older brother, Jason, to a fatal car accident in the fall of 1986, Heigl’s family donated his organs. “After one week in the hospital, it was determined that he was brain-dead and we chose to donate his organs in an effort to help others live,” Heigl says. “After that experience, our whole family became advocates of organ donation.”
The decision felt right because, as Heigl explains, it’s what Jason, who was just 15, would have wanted. “He was a very compassionate, kind, caring young man,” she recalls. “Secondly, he was a strong, healthy boy whose only injury was from the neck, up. And if we could spare other families from this pain and suffering we were experiencing, then we needed to do that.
“If anyone could have helped Jason and chose not to, it would have been even more heartbreaking,” she says.
“Having courage isn’t: not being afraid; it is often about being afraid but doing the right thing anyway.”
The transplant process
Though the paperwork to go through with the donation was easy, saying goodbye wasn’t, of course. Surgeons from Yale New Haven Hospital were flown in that day and Heigl’s family had their last moments with Jason at 7 p.m. “As they wheeled him out of the ICU, down the hall to the operating room, we knew we had made the right decision — Jason’s decision,” Nancy Heigl shares. “But it was a hard night — to say it wasn’t would be a lie.
“Courage is an underrated virtue in our country and sometimes misunderstood,” Katherine adds. “Having courage isn’t: not being afraid; it is often about being afraid but doing the right thing anyway.
“We knew in our heads that we had lost Jason the week before, on the day of the accident,” her mother sums, “but now it was final, and permanently in our hearts.”
At that time, donor families weren’t told who specifically received the organs, but Heigl’s family did know that her brother’s organs saved four lives. “We knew that a young man got his heart and two people got their sight back,” she says. “Who received them didn’t matter, other than that they saved [those] lives.”
Expanding Jason’s legacy
In 2008, Katherine and Nancy Heigl founded the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation with a mission to end animal cruelty as a way of honoring Jason’s compassion and kindness. Jason had always loved animals — dogs, cats and monkeys, in particular — which inspired the decision to dedicate the foundation’s work to animal welfare.
Currently there are over 119,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, and every 10 minutes another person is added to the list. In 2015, more than 37,000 organs were donated, but growing that number is what Heigl and her family hopes for as they continue to share their story and increase awareness of the organ donation process.
“Even in the midst of unimaginable pain and sorrow, I knew that we needed to have as much compassion for others as we had for ourselves,” Heigl adds. That compassion did save others in need, and her family’s efforts — along with others spreading donor education — are getting through. As of September 1, 2016, more than 130 million people (more than half of U.S. adults) over the age of 18 had registered to be organ donors — a number that, hopefully, will continue to climb.