National Donor Day Celebrated on Valentine’s Day at Santa Fe

Valerie D’Ortona remembers her son and advocates for organ donation; Sen. Steve Oelrich to speak

There’s no escaping the hearts and flowers and gooey pink sentiment wafting from every retail outlet on Valentine’s Day. But it’s also National Donor Day, and in that respect, today is about a different kind of love.

SF adjunct English Professor Valerie D’Ortona will sign the book she wrote and illustrated, “Big T’s Heart’s In Me” ($19), from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. today at the SF Library. It’s not just a simple book signing, however. D’Ortona has organized this event to encourage more young people to sign up to be organ donors. Sen. Steve Oelrich will speak about his son who was also an organ donor, and LifeSouth will have a bloodmobile on campus and organ donor “promise” cards for people to sign.

The accident

Big T’s story is the tale of D’Ortona’s son Tony who died on June 15, 2008, at the age of 33. (Read more about Tony’s life in this obituary.) At that time, Tony was working in the culinary arts in the Grand Tetons at Jackson Lake Lodge. He had been out West just six weeks when he offered to help a friend move her things from Salt Lake City, Utah up to Wyoming, using his pick-up truck. It was a long trip and the two took turns driving. His friend fell asleep at the wheel after they’d been driving all night. The truck hit a guardrail and flipped multiple times near Idaho Falls, Idaho. Tony was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from the vehicle.

“His head ‘cracked open like an egg when he hit the pavement,’ is how the nurse described what happened,” D’Ortona recalled. “He never recovered after that and was declared brain dead the next day.”

Tony’s friend was wearing her seatbelt and walked away from the accident.

D’Ortona and Tony’s father made it out to Idaho the next evening. Tony was already brain dead when they arrived, but his body was kept on life support until his organs were harvested as per his wishes when he had earlier signed up to be an organ donor — so the family had a chance to say goodbye.

Tony’s heart kept a young woman named Emily alive for 22 months; she was the mother of two young children. Tony’s liver is in a man in his 60s, Tony’s corneas went to two different people, and one of his kidneys is in a California man. Tony is living on via the donations.

D’Ortona’s writing and “grief journey”

D’Ortona kept a journal about her “grief journey” and turned it into a story that she also illustrated.

“I started working on it as soon as I got back from Idaho,” she said.

Tony had been the one who encouraged her to take art classes. D’Ortona loves color and primitive outsider art. She was already doing whimsical animal drawings when she turned the story of Tony’s death into a tale told by a young bull to a frog, cat and pig. The story also emphasizes the importance of wearing seatbelts.

D’Ortona began teaching at SF as an adjunct in 1991-1992. After she earned her doctorate, she moved to Georgia, then Missouri, in college administration. She rejoined the SF English Department in 2003.

D’Ortona shared her writing process with her SF English students through classes such as her Advanced Writing Special Topics course, Aging: Sex, Drugs and Rockin’ Chairs.

“My students have been through the process with me,” she says, “giving feedback and encouragement.”

D’Ortona said she hopes today’s event will not only celebrate her son’s life but will raise awareness about organ donation and motivate more people to sign up to be donors.

“There are too many people on the waiting lists, particularly for kidneys and livers,” she said.