The Gift of Time

Paul and Becky Owen of Little Rock display the floragraph of their daughter Melissa.

Rose Parade float memorializes LR organ donor

BY JANE DENNIS
Interim Editor

The annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., is a stunning feast for the senses, an explosion of unparalleled floral beauty and a dizzying combination of creativity and engineering magic.

But for Paul and Becky Owen of Little Rock, this year’s parade on Jan. 1 will forever hold a special place in their hearts for honoring the memory of their late daughter, Melissa, and the lives she touched when she agreed to be an organ donor. Melissa died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm at age 38 on Christmas Eve 2014. Because she had registered as an organ donor on her driver’s license and talked about it openly, her organs provided new hope for survival to three people in three states. The gifts would save their lives.

A lasting bond

This story of giving and hope was well represented on this year’s Donate Life Tournament of Roses float, called “The Gift of Time.” The float not only celebrated Melissa’s memory, it celebrated her heart, too. One of the 16 organ recipients riding on the float was Yolanda Harshaw, the recipient of Melissa’s heart. In a twist that rarely happens, the organ donor and organ recipient were both from the same city, Little Rock, and lived just a few miles apart.

Healthy and grateful for a new chance at life, Harshaw met the Owens family two years after her transplant. Now friends, Harshaw and the Owens shared the Rose Parade with bond and connection few others have experienced.

Paul Owen is director of children’s ministries at Trinity United Methodist Church in Little Rock, a position he has held for 14 of the 40 years he has been a member of Trinity UMC. He and Becky were part of the Arkansas Team of volunteers who worked on the Donate Life float, which recognized organizations like ARORA (Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency).

ARORA facilitated honoring Melissa’s wishes to have her organs donated upon her death. ARORA also played a role in introducing the Owens to Harshaw when both agreed to a meeting.

Paul and Becky Owen with the Donate Life float at the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Flowers come to life

The Owens were touched that Melissa was one of 44 organ donors memorialized on the massive Rose Parade float. Melissa’s image was featured on a floragraph, an image created of floral materials.

“We got to go to Pasadena and work on the float, then we were in the bleachers during the parade, which is five and half miles long,” Paul said.

The parade is an amazing spectacle of sight and sound and mechanical wizardry. “The floats are huge, and you can’t always tell that watching on TV,” he said. “But to be there in person and to smell those flowers …  there is nothing else like it. You don’t get that on TV.”

The design and mechanical part of most floats are under construction for the better part of a year. Then at a frenzied pace, during the three days just before the parade, 600 volunteers work in shifts around the clock to painstakingly apply the fresh flowers that complete each themed float.

“There’s a huge computerized plan of where each single flower will go,” Paul explained.

Organ donor advocates

The Owens are outspoken advocates for ARORA and efforts to raise awareness

that organ and tissue donation saves and heals lives. Nationally, 125,000 people are waiting for organs, including more than 300 Arkansans. Some are waiting on kidneys or hearts. Others need livers and heart/lung combinations.

“For us, taking part in the parade was a platform for us to tell Melissa’s story and to speak about the power of organ donation,” Paul said. “And it was especially meaningful to have her heart recipient be there and ride on the float.”

Melissa died on Christmas Eve. Harshaw had been placed on the transplant list the day before. Theirs was a perfect match.

Looking back, Paul calls it “a Christmas miracle.”


Organ donation saves lives

Did you know:

  • Currently there are more than 117,200 people waiting for organs in the U.S.
  • Every 14 minutes another person is added to the national waiting list for organs.
  • One-third of the people waiting for organs will die before they receive a transplant.
  • Of the 25,000 people who die of a brain death each year (and could donate organs), only 5,500 donate.

All the vital organs in the body can be transplanted: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas and the small intestine. Tissues include the cornea or eye, bone, skin, cartilage, ligaments, veins and heart valves.  

Everyone should consider himself or herself a potential organ and tissue donor. Your medical condition at the time of death will determine what organs and tissues can be donated.

The only diseases that completely eliminate you from being an organ or tissue donor are metastatic cancer, HIV or AIDS. Other medical conditions that could affect organ donation are evaluated on a case by case basis.

For more information, contact Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency (ARORA) at (501) 907-9150 or www.arora.org.