Editorial: The Last Full Measure

Abraham Lincoln spoke of the willingness to fight and die for others as "the last full measure of devotion." Officers who agree to have their organs donated upon death exemplify that devotion.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

All magazine and newspaper columnists have ideas that they keep in their back pockets to write about when the stars align. Mine is a personal story, but in the bigger picture, it's about heroic law enforcement officers.

I've wanted to write this column for a little more than four years. But I've been sitting on it because ... Well, more on that in a minute.

As you probably remember, 2009 was a particularly deadly year for American law enforcement. There were at least three attacks on police that year that amounted to massacres. Four officers were shot down in a coffee shop in Lakewood, Wash., in November; three were slain in an ambush in Pittsburgh in April; and four were murdered in two separate incidents by the same gunman on the same March day in Oakland.

One of those murdered Oakland officers was John Hege. He was shot and mortally wounded by a parolee during a traffic stop on March 21, 2009. Sgt. Mark Dunakin was killed in the same encounter. And later that same day, the same man killed Sgt. Ervin Romans and Sgt. Daniel Sakai who were tasked with bringing him to justice for shooting Dunakin and Hege.

Three of these Oakland officers died the day of the shooting. But in accordance with the wishes expressed on his driver license, Hege—though brain dead—was left on life support so that doctors could remove his organs for transplant. Four people had their lives extended by Hege's desire to save lives even after his death.

Hege is just one of numerous officers whose heroism after death has resulted in a new lease on life for others. Before undertaking this column, I checked the archives of PoliceMag.com and searched for posthumous officer organ donors on the Web, and I found the following: Indianapolis Metro Police Officer David Moore, Anniston (Ala.) Police Officer Justin Sollohub, Jersey City Police Officer Marc DiNardo, and Richmond (Calif.) Police Officer Bradley Moody. This is probably just a partial list of the officers killed on duty who helped others even after their end of watch.

Believe me, dear readers, I have the utmost respect for you all; I thank you for your service; and I ask God to bless you for all the good work you do. But you'll have to forgive me if I say I have a special place in my heart for these officers, for those living officers who have donated organs, and for all officers who have agreed to donate their organs should they fall.

You see in 2002 I was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD). This is a genetic disease that likely means kidney failure, dialysis, and long years of waiting for a transplant.

My kidneys failed in 2010, and I went on a home dialysis treatment regimen. Believe me when I tell you, dialysis is a drag. It drains you of your endurance, and it ages you fast. Life on dialysis is kind of like living a half-life.

My half-life ended earlier this summer after four-and-a-half years on the kidney list, when I was called in for transplant surgery. June 19 is now my second birthday. I now feel truly reborn. And if I could, I would hug my donor, but she died in a motorcycle accident. Such is the harsh reality that I make myself remember every day. Someone died and left me this gift, and I must do everything I can to keep it healthy and make the most of my life.

So that's my story. And I thank you for taking the time to read it.

Now let me explain why I sat on the story of Hege and the other officer donors for so long. I wanted to be able to tell it and explain why it resonated so strongly with me. But I didn't want it to sound like I was fishing for a donor; I don't believe in doing that beyond family and friends unless death is imminent or you're a cop or another profession that requires physical fitness. (One of you, however, did find out about my condition and offered to get tested to see if he could give me a kidney. I declined, but, sir, it was greatly appreciated.) 

There are those who would say I probably shouldn't divulge this private medical information. But I do it for this reason: There are more than 100,000 people in the United States who need transplants, and I believe if people can put a face to that statistic maybe they will be more inclined to check that organ donation box on their driver license applications.

You have all willingly decided to devote your lives to serve and protect others. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the willingness to fight and die for others as "the last full measure of devotion." Officers who agree to have their organs donated upon death exemplify that devotion.

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