Physician finds healing through organ donation after loss of son

March 28, 2023 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Signing up to be an organ donor is a personal decision. Many families don’t discuss organ donation until it’s time to apply for or renew a driver’s license. For Edward-Elmhurst Health's Patrick J. O’Donnell, M.D., a family medicine physician, it was important that he and his wife, Carol, discuss the benefits of organ donation with their children.

“We all agreed as a family that we would be organ donors if the opportunity were to arise,” he says.

In the late 1990s, Dr. O'Donnell's 16-year-old son, Sean, was killed in an automobile accident while leaving a local high school with two friends. The O'Donnell family found peace knowing that they had made the decision to be organ donors together.

“It’s an overwhelmingly difficult time to have something like this happen to your family. A lot of things don’t make sense, but organ donation was the only thing that did,” he adds.

Through Sean’s gift of life, transplant recipients were able to receive his heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas. Looking back, his father describes this time in his family’s life as a blur.

“You look for something good to come out of an accident,” he says. “The depth of sadness when losing a child is unimaginable, but knowing that his organs went to someone helped us heal,” he adds.

Honoring Sean’s legacy

Dr. O’Donnell describes his son as a fun and bright teenager who enjoyed challenging others with his charming personality.

“He was the person you didn’t want to get in a battle of wits with. He was the person that everyone liked. I don’t think he had any enemies,” he says. “When you think about him, you have to smile.”

Since Sean’s accident, the O’Donnell family, along with the other families that were impacted by the tragic car accident, have hosted a yearly golf outing to raise money to offset the cost of tuition for students attending Sean’s high school.

“With what we’ve raised and what we’ve given out, it’s been well over a million dollars,” he says. “We’re proud to keep his memory and the memory of the other two students going.”

Seeing the benefits of organ donation from all sides

As a physician, Dr. O’Donnell believes in the gift of life through organ donation, and he has seen the benefits from all sides. In addition to his son becoming a donor, his mother-in-law became an organ donor recipient before his son passed away.

“It’s a unique position to be in. Since I’ve seen it from every angle, I see how organ donation can make a difference in a family’s life,” he adds.

Having been impacted in so many ways, Dr. O’Donnell volunteers his time on the Gift of Hope committee at Edward Hospital to raise awareness of organ donation within the hospital’s units.

“We try to discuss the benefits of organ donation with families and turn the discussion into acts. Edward Hospital has become one of the leading hospitals in the state for organ donation,” he says.

Getting ahead of the conversation

Once he retires from his career as a physician, Dr. O’Donnell wants to continue to promote the benefits of organ donation. He’d like children to hear about organ donation while they are in school, so they too can go home and have a conversation with their parents.

“You always hope that people don’t ever have to be in a horrible situation where a loved one is involved in an accident. The last thing you want to do is make that decision, but having these conversations ahead of time makes that difficult decision so much easier to do,” he says.

April is National Donate Life Month. Join our commitment to save lives. Register as an organ and tissue donor today.

Edward-Elmhurst Health is proud to partner with Gift of Hope and HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration) to help increase awareness about the importance of donation. By adding your name to the donor registry today, you will be helping to save and enhance the lives of more than 25 people and leave a lifesaving legacy for your loved ones.

Learn more about organ, eye and tissue donation.

UTI blog June 2023 newsletter

Answers to your burning questions about UTIs

Urinary tract infections are common in women, and have some telltale symptoms you should know.

Read More


What's so bad about sugar?

Overdoing refined carbs could make you feel tired, look older, and could lead to life-threatening diseases.

Read More

Neuro Innovationscrop

Innovations in neurology at Edward-Elmhurst Health

Neurologists at Edward-Elmhurst Health are delivering high-quality patient care through exciting, innovative treatment...

Read More