Kathleen Bridgett Coolican, the youngest of six children, was a freckle-faced, curly haired tomboy. Katie dreamt of being a mud wrestler. She was a happy little girl, smiled often and had a “what’s next life” kind of attitude, according to her mother, Maggie. She loved to fish, and often put her bathing suit on backward.
Six-year-old Katie was a first grade student when she collapsed on the playground from an arteriovenous (AV) malformation and became the family’s first organ and tissue donor. “Katie’s death in a small New England town impacted many,” said Maggie. “We quickly understood that her death was not something we would ever get over, but would learn to live with. Friends, neighbors and strangers provided daily support and dedicated a playground in her memory in 1984.” Her graduating classmates remembered Katie and dedicated a page in their senior yearbook. Katie’s donation educated many children and adults and continues to help her family. She is featured in a children’s coloring book about donation, Precious Gifts.
“Much has changed since Katie became a donor. At that time we received one letter about her gifts and then were left to grieve alone. There were no books or pamphlets about donation or grief. There were no support groups or cards remembering her birthday. There were no quilts or special memorial services or floats to remember Katie and other donors and their families,” observed Maggie.
In 1985, Maggie began to speak out about this lack of care and support that she felt as a nurse and a mother. She wrote an article that appeared in the American Journal of Nursing that became “Katie’s Legacy” and led to many speaking engagements throughout the country as she advocated for improved care and follow-up for donor families.
By 1989, Maggie had written a family donor booklet, For Those Who Give and Grieve, as her graduate thesis, and the booklet was published and distributed to more than 125,000 people. The response to the booklet led to the publication of the For Those Who Give and Grieve quarterly newsletter with Maggie as the founding editor. In 1992, the National Donor Family Council housed at the National Kidney Foundation was formed. The Council, with Maggie as the founding chair, published the Donor Family Bill of Rights, National Communication Guidelines and several other resources for donor families. Maggie also created the National Donor Family Quilt and sewed the first 25 panels with a total of 1,750 “Patches of Love.” Katie’s patch went on the final panel.
During this time, Maggie also worked with Hartford Hospital to create a two-year follow-up bereavement program for families that has been replicated around the country. She has participated on several national boards and committees, including UNOS, AMA Organ Task Force, Advisory Board on Organ Transplantation, AOPO Donor Family Council and was a founding member of Donate Life Connecticut.
In 1991, she began working at the organ recovery organization in her home state, now LifeChoice Donor Services, and later at the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, where she continues to support and advocate for donor families.