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How My Sister, Julie De Rossi, Lived Outrageously and Outlived Herself

(Written By Karen Abercrombie)

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Julie was a free spirit.  You never knew what was coming next.  A child of the sixties and teenager of the seventies, she was constantly pushing limits and buttons.  She wore a full-length black cape to middle school.  Smoked cigarettes at the bus stop.  Married at age 16.  Shortly thereafter, she moved to the Pacific northwest to be close to her husband’s family, where she dabbled in everything from drag racing to interior design.  Always a music lover, a few years before her death, she moved back to Houston and had settled into a promising career representing bands.

In the early morning hours of March 17, 2004, while driving home from downtown Houston, where she had been promoting a band in a nightclub, Julie’s car was struck from behind by a drunk driver.  The police estimate the car that hit her was traveling at a speed of 117 miles per hour, upon impact.  The driver’s blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit.

I was out of town at the time, on a ski trip to Colorado with my husband and son.  When the call came in from Julie’s son, Aaron, that morning, I knew something was terribly wrong.  “You need to come home,” he said.  We caught the first flight home and arrived at Hermann Hospital in the Houston Medical Center in time to say goodbye.  Julie was being kept on life support.

Our mother, Dorothy, and Aaron had been approached hours earlier by a LifeGift representative about donating Julie’s organs and tissues.  Fortunately, while she was living, Julie make it known that if anything ever happened to her, she wanted to be a donor.  So in our darkest hour, my mom and Aaron didn’t have to make a decision about donation, they merely carried out her wishes.

About a year and a half later, we received a call from Catherine Burch, then LifeGift’s PR representative, letting us know that a “high-profile sports figure” had been a recipient of one of Julie’s tissues.  She explained that a writer for Bloomberg was interested in writing a story about it, and they wanted to know if we would agree to allow the story to be told.  Out of curiosity more than anything, we said yes.

As it turned out, the sports figure was Carson Palmer, then quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals and the highest paid player in the NFL.  Julie’s Achilles tendon had been used to repair Carson’s knee, injured in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The story, Unlikely Support System for Bengals’ Palmer, appeared in The New York Times on August 9, 2006.  A new version, Carson Palmer’s Lasting Connection, was published in December 2014 by ESPN The Magazine’s Dave Fleming, and a video story aired on the NFL pregame show.  By that time, Carson had joined the Arizona Cardinals as their quarterback, and right before the second story was published, he reinjured the same knee.  This time, his own tissue was used to make the repair, ending Julie’s physical connection to Carson.

As a result of the initial story, I became an advocate for organ and tissue donation, speaking to several groups about our experiences.  I served for six years as the Donor Family Representative on the Donor Board of Trustees of the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, during which time I came to realize that there are so many misconceptions about donation, among them:

  • If they know I am a registered donor, doctors won’t fight (as hard) to save my life. Not true.
  • I can’t have an open casket funeral if I am a donor. Not true.
  • I am too old to be a donor. Not true. In fact, many in their eighties have been donors.
  • I registered when I renewed my driver’s license. Isn’t that enough? Yes and no. I would recommend everyone do two things. First, go to donatelife.net and register there, just to be safe. It takes about three minutes. Second – and this is very important – tell your family you did.

Through my sister’s donation, upwards of 80 lives were either saved or enriched.  Julie was bigger than life while she was living, and she has definitely outlived herself.  I am proud to share her story with you.  If you would like to read more, I invite you to read the whole story, How My Sister Gave Carson Palmer and Me a Second Chance, on my blog, piqueblog.com.

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