It was Sept. 15 and early — about 4 a.m. — when Monroe resident Carrie Fisher was getting ready for a job interview.
She graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree, received a master's from Rutgers University and had a successful career as a project manager for a consulting firm.
But on that September morning in 2017, the 47-year-old wife and mother of two didn't make it to her interview. Carrie Fisher had her third stroke. She died two days later, a week before her daughter, Erica's 17th birthday, and a few days prior to her son's, Jacob, birthday.
The family, including her husband, Michael, had been living in Monroe for 14 years. Erica and Jacob were doing well in school, and Erica was looking at colleges. But their lives changed when their mother died. What also changed were the lives of those she helped as an organ donor, an act she will be honored for this week.
Through the NJ Sharing Network, Carrie Fisher’s organ donation saved or improved the lives of 14 people, with more to possibly come. In recognition, she will be honored on the Donate Life Float Jan. 1 during the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif. Celebrating its 16th anniversary, the Donate Life Float is part of a national initiative to help share the importance of organ and tissue donation with millions of people who either visit Pasadena or tune in to watch the parade on New Year’s Day. As part of the event, Carrie Fisher’s face will be created out of roses and placed on the float.
“If I had to choose one word to describe her, it would be selflessness,” said Erica Fisher, who attends the University of Pittsburgh. “I never met a person in my life who was as selfless as her. That, and she was thoughtful. You can mean that in two ways, thoughtful as in intelligence, always thinking — and she was always thinking — and you can think about it in terms of her being a genuinely good person. She genuinely cared about people other than herself.”
According to the NJ Sharing Network, Fisher’s kidneys were donated to two women. Through the organization Eversight, her corneas gave two individuals the gift of sight, including an 88-year-old man from New Jersey whom can see for the first time in years, and LifeNet Health was able to recover her heart valves resulting in two cardiac grafts.
In addition, Community Tissue Services was able to make 19 grafts from gifts of skin, bone and tendons. As of today, 13 of those grafts have been used to help people in several ways: A 16-year-old woman received a tendon for knee surgery; a 64-year-old man received two skin grafts after suffering from a severe burn; five individuals between the ages of 7 and 80 received bone grafts for spinal fusions to end chronic pain and help them walk again; and two men received five grafts for surgeries. The remaining five skin and bone grafts mean she will be able to help even more people.
Now a college sophomore, Erica Fisher is working toward a career in which she can help others in the same way she and her family was helped. A volunteer with NJ Sharing Network, she is considering studying legal studies and wants to focus on nonprofit organizations.
“I’d done research and one day I was like, ‘I have to do this.’ I like giving back," Erica Fisher said. "[NJ Sharing Network] did so much for us, and I wanted to do the same thing for others. That’s the one thing I wanted.”
Carrie Fisher’s stroke was not her first. She had already experienced two but had a clean a bill of health. The first two strokes were within a few months of one another, but her motor skills recovered, and her speech was fine, but the third was a surprise, Erica Fisher said.
While at the hospital, the Fishers wrestled with what to do. As a family, they had discussed becoming organ donors, and each agreed to do so, and when it came time to say good-bye, they knew her death would mean something.
On Sept. 17, 2017, the Fishers gathered at the hospital to say farewell. They spent the day talking, visiting and remembering their mother. When the last of Carrie’s Fisher’s close friends left and the family was alone, Jacob took out his guitar and began to play “Simple Man,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was his Bar Mitzvah song.
“We all sat by my mom. She was stable, but considered brain dead,” Erica Fisher said. “But because of how little research there is, they don’t know if someone who is brain dead can hear you. They can’t respond, but we don’t know what resonates, but in case they hear, my brother played. My mother adored that song.”
By the time he had finished playing, nurses and doctors had gathered nearby to listen. Many were crying, Erica said.
“We have to carry on. It’s exactly what she would have wanted, to keep living your life, making the best of everything and always having a smile on your face. The glass was always half full with her, and I’ve definitely been trying to be like that,” Erica Fisher said.
The Donate Life Float can be seen on New Year’s Day in the Rose Parade, which will be broadcast at 11 a.m. To find out where to tune in to watch the Parade, visit www.DonateLifeFloat.org.
NJ Sharing Network recovers organs and tissue and belongs to a national network that helps the 115,000 people waiting for a transplant. New Jersey residents can help save lives by registering as organ and tissue donors at www.NJSharingNetwork.org, having a conversation with family and friends and joining NJ Sharing Network at its upcoming events.