Organ Donation Created Ripple Effects of Goodness

The transplant surgeon called Julie Shepherd’s heart the “mythical perfect heart.”

It’s a sentiment shared by those who knew her. The Helena 17-year-old had a megawatt smile, a deep concern for others, and a rare sparkle.

Julie’s life was too short, but her life mattered. She left a beautiful legacy of kindness. The donation of her organs saved six lives. Her death by suicide in 2017 inspired others to start conversations about their own struggles with mental illness.

Julie fought depression with bravery, but the darkness became more severe and more isolating until she felt there was no relief in sight.

Julie would sit in a room with her devoted family, surrounded by powerlifting and softball trophies and pictures of friends, and yet think she was unloved, friendless, and a burden, her dad Derrek Shepherd expressed.

“We were trying,” he said. “I don’t think she wanted to admit what was going on.”

Derrek likened her illness to trying to convince her the wall she was looking at was painted red. She would eventually say she agreed it was red, but she would keep falsely believing it was blue.

“People are realizing it’s not about picking yourself up by your bootstraps.”

–Derrek Shepherd, Julie's dad

During their tragedy, Julie’s family found comfort in knowing the impact she made. The family of a nonverbal child with autism told them about going into the bakery where Julie worked, just to see her smile. Her friends remembered her as someone who defended them. Her teachers remembered the way she lit up the hallways.

When Julie passed away, LifeCenter Northwest, Benefis’ partner in organ donation, coordinated transplant surgeons, patients, and hospitals to receive the organs. Benefis also provided a bereavement team to meet with her family.

Brandi Cornwell, RN, leads the donation team at Benefis and estimated 20 providers helped make the donation possible.

The transplant team works with the goal of “uniting to provide the gift of life to another and closure to the family that is grieving,” and of respecting the wishes of the family and donor so that life may continue.

“It’s about being able to know something tragic happened, but there was good that came out of it.”

–Brandi Cornwell, RN

Julie’s family met the teenage girl from Utah who has Julie’s heart. As her heart failed, the girl was hooked to machines and too weak to leave her bed. Within weeks of the transplant, she was active again, Derrek said. And, Julie seems to have passed on her sweet tooth to the girl – she now craves ice cream, which she never favored before.

A Washington man in his early twenties was losing the ability to breathe as water filled his lungs. He sent his gratitude for Julie’s lung donation. Her liver saved a woman who was too emotional to write to Julie’s family, though her children sent their heartfelt thanks.

Julie’s family also donated her corneas, ligaments, and skin tissue.

“You start thinking of the recipients, their families, their friends, the chains of people they’ll impact down the road. Think of all the people her donation touched.”

–Derrek Shepherd, Julie's dad

Julie’s family came to Benefis this fall to put the finishing touches on a special portrait of her. The portrait, a “floragraph” made of natural materials, will honor her life-saving legacy on the Donate Life Float in the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California.

Her family likes to remember Julie’s surprise aptitude for powerlifting. Her skill motivated her little brother, now a volunteer firefighter, to start weight training.

“There’s more strength in you than you expect,” Derrek said. “People learned that by watching her.”

–Derrek Shepherd, Julie's dad

Putting Pediatric Mental Health at the Forefront

Our community must take pediatric and adolescent mental health seriously. No less than our future is at stake.

Nearly a quarter of Montana students give serious thought to attempting suicide, according to the state’s annual youth risk behavior survey – twenty-five percent of our children are under suffocating duress.

With the support of donors like you, Benefis Health System is building a new Women’s and Children’s Center on 10th Avenue South. The new center will host offices of pediatric psychiatry, pediatric neuropsychology, and many other pediatric health and wellness services.

“With the advent of the Women’s and Children’s Center, we’re speaking about creating a medical home and bringing in the neuropsychologists, child psychiatrists, and the pediatrician that’s generating the referral,” Dr. LaToya Floyd said. “We’re bringing them together in a collaborative way because together, we’re stronger.”

Benefis specialists need your help as they work together to help children and their families grow toward fulfilling, productive lives.

“If we can figure out how to create a continuum of care of the services that we have, we will definitely see change in our community,” Dr. Floyd said.

Dr. Emily Grant, a pediatrician and a mom, said investing in the new center will pay itself forward as it improves the health of the next generation of Montanans.

“We serve a large area, and if you put all the children in those communities together, that is our future,” she said. “Getting them a solid foundation started as children makes a lifelong impact.”

"Together, we're stronger."

–Dr. LaToya Floyd