The newly hired public education coordinator was diagnosed with a kidney-attacking autoimmune disease called crescentic IgA glomerulonephritis at the age of 17, and needed help in a big way.
After she survived six bouts of chemotherapy, completely losing her former life as an athlete and honor student, Haga sought a healthy kidney.
Four years ago, it was her stepfather who offered up one of his kidneys, giving her the most important gift she’s ever received.
“As a living donor, he had no obligation to give it to me, but he gave me a new life,” she said. Now she’s an advocate for others to donate organs and tissue, as it’s an easy way to give life to another.
The gift from her stepfather that saved her life gave her direction for how she’d carry out her extended years.
Now, at 23, Haga travels to high schools and events across the region, spreading the word for Tennessee Donor Services. Fighting many misconceptions that slow the momentum of this life-saving movement, Haga presents both the facts and her personal story.
Along with the recognition she’s gotten for being such a survivor and advocate, her story is criss-crossing the globe because of her recent graduation from Sweet Briar College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
A school photographer, Cassie Foster, captured a shot of the top of Haga’s cap.
“I am here because of an organ donor,” Haga’s mortar board read.
What was supposed to be a quiet shout-out to her stepfather turned into a viral photograph, going out over the school’s Facebook page.
“This was a gesture shared between me and my family, particularly my stepdad,” Haga said. “Now people across the U.S. — who I’ll probably never meet — are telling me how touched they are and how organ donation has changed their lives.”
To this date, it’s been seen by more than 1.4 million people across the U.S.
“If I can get one person out of a room of 20 to sign up as an organ and tissue donor, I’ve made a big difference, maybe saving up to nine lives,” Haga said.
That exponential effect excites Haga and other advocates of organ and tissue donation, as medical innovation has showed much progress in this field.
But to get more people signed up — often done at places like Tennessee Driver Services — Haga has to put to bed misconceptions.
Questions about open-casket funerals, whether paramedics will work as fervently to save the lives of organ donors and whether those who’ve had diabetes and cancer can donate their organs or tissues are often brought up.
Yes, they can deal with the organs and tissues of those who’ve had cancer or diabetes. Yes, paramedics try to save organ donors as much they save non-donors and yes, open-casket funerals are still possible after tissue or organ donation.
Lives are so often saved when people check those few boxes, and to Haga, it’s a no-brainer that people should sign up, though she recognizes it’s their choice. But as someone who walks around and lives a more normal life because of the generosity of another, she’ll continue to get out there and share her story.
The way blood and plasma and even portions of organs like the liver and intestines regenerate over time, there’s little reason not to make wishes clear and to donate, Haga argues.
“The human body is amazing,” she said. “It’s really incredible.”
Email Tony Casey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.