Choir unites organ recipients and donor relativesThe emotion permeating the uJung Art Center in Seocho District, southern Seoul, was palpable last October as one by one, the people there shared their stories of grief and loss.
Some of their loved ones had died in car accidents, others had passed away from sudden illness, but all of them had gifted new life to someone else.
In commemoration of World Organ Donation and Transplant Day on Oct. 17, the Korea Organ Donation Agency established the Sound of Life Choir. The group consists of the surviving relatives of organ donors, organ recipients and people who have pledged to one day be organ donors themselves.
The members of the choir met for the first time on Aug. 22 at the uJung Art Center, but the bonds between them were evident nevertheless as they practiced the song “Giving Love and Receiving Gratefulness.”
A few who couldn’t hold back their tears had to step outside for a moment.
“It feels good to sing by thinking about my father,” said Park Yu-na, 9, who held tight onto her grandmother’s hand. Her father, an organ donor, died unexpectedly in June 2014.
Jang Yeon-jeong, 43, the choir’s conductor, said she knew “instantly” on the first day why she had to be the one to take charge of the Sound of Life Choir.
By law, organ donors are barred from knowing any personal information about the recipients. So for many of the people who had lost loved ones, the idea of seeing organ recipients in person was overwhelmingly emotional.
“From time to time, I thought about writing a letter to the person who received a part of my daughter, even though I had never met them,” said Park Jung-sun, 54. “I couldn’t help crying because [the choir recipients] remind me of my daughter.”
The recipients felt much the same. Now, they could finally express their gratitude at being afforded a second chance.
“I was touched when I saw that the donors’ families were consoled just by seeing us,” said Lim Hae-cheol, a singer who received a kidney implant in 2011.
He even produced an album dedicated to the donors’ relatives to show his appreciation.
The choir members met each Saturday over six months to practice three songs. During rehearsals, they got the chance to open up to one another and share their experiences, which brought them nearly as close as family.
And the choir practices, initially characterized by tears and emotion, eventually became filled with laughter and happiness.
“The choir brought me back to the world at a time when I felt guilty and was afraid to leave the house,” Park said. “The choir members are now my family - closer than my blood relations.”
Some choir members even became sworn families.
Lee Bong-hwa, 59, the relative of an organ donor, and Hong Gwang-jin, 39, a recipient, grew close and swore brotherhood to each other. Lee picked up Hong from Gimpo International Airport once each week to give him a ride to choir practice, and Hong’s children even call Lee “uncle.”
Lee Hyun-joo, 26, received a kidney transplant in 1995, when she was 5 years old. And thanks to the choir, she now has two fathers.
Lee read a letter published in a calendar by the organ agency that was written by Song Jong-bin, 62, to his deceased daughter. She was so moved that she joined the choir to meet him and wrote him a letter asking him to serve as a father figure at a time when her own father was undergoing medical struggles.
“My real father also received an organ transplant, so he knows how important organ donation is,” she said. “After my real father recovers his health, I’d like to sing with both my fathers.”
Choir activities have since concluded, but the participants were reluctant to say goodbye and continued choir practice until the end of the year. Yet even now, they continue to stay in touch.
Following the success of the first Sound of Life Choir, the Korea Organ Donation Agency is seeking out new members for a second team. Its goal is to gather about 50 participants, and many inaugural members have already promised to rejoin.
Organ donation can save lives, but the decision for families isn’t easy, particularly with loved ones lives’ at stake.
Nevertheless, the number of organ donations has consistently risen. Last year, 501 people donated organs, a drastic increase from 36 people in 2002. However, these gifts still fall far short of demand. Currently, 26,000 people are on waiting lists to receive new organs.
Negative social perception toward organ donation also hinders further donations. “Whenever I tell people I donated my late son’s organs, they ask me how much I was paid,” said Kim Ae-ja, 53. “When people treat me as if I just sold off my son, my heart breaks.”
Still, the families of donors unanimously agreed that they don’t regret the decision and would do the same if faced with the choice again.
And the choir’s participants all share the same modest dream: that their audience merely consider the positive impact of organ donation.
JEONG JONG-HOON [email@example.com]