‘All my priorities in life changed’

“All my priorities in life changed.”

That is how Audre Johnson described her transformation when her son Jesse died by suicide in June of 2002.

A nurse by training, Audre was working as a real estate agent at the time of her son’s death. She said she always prided herself on doing well in negotiations and getting the right value for her client.

“Somehow, a crack in the tile of a house didn’t seem to matter anymore,” she said.

After her son died, she renewed her nursing license. “I felt I needed to be open to all my fields,” she said. “Fourteen months before he died, I had a bypass surgery. The doctors told me I had a very good chance of dying before the surgery ever took place. When Jesse died, it was obvious to me that God had a purpose for me, he allowed me to live when I had a bad situation and he took our son. I felt I had to open up and be ready.“

Audre and her husband Bob knew that Jesse was a giving person. “We had even talked about organ donation, and we knew that’s what he wanted,” she said.

Doctors harvested five of Jesse’s organs - his heart, cornea, kidneys, liver and lungs - and all five of them were used in transplants. Shortly after that, Audre started speaking on behalf of Lifesource, an organization that works to build awareness of the need for organ donors.

“I speak to all types of groups - Rotary Clubs, adult church groups, driver’s ed classes,” she said. “I work with hospitals, doctors and nurses, and speak to a broad range of people to help boost awareness.”

She said when she started with Lifesource, there wasn't a lot of awareness out there about organ donations. That has changed for the better, but more work is needed.

Audre always had a strong faith in God, and she said Jesse’s death has helped to strengthen it.

“I’d always been active in my church,” she said. “And I’ve become even more active since then. It seemed to be the place where I could find work to do. I’ve been active in mission outreach,” said Audre who is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New Prague.

She has also worked to help families of those who have died by suicide.

“To me, speaking was a healing thing. In our society, we’re supposed to ‘get over’ a death - NOW. It doesn't work that way. You still have tears of grieving, but that’s a healthy thing.”

She said the important thing is to not focus on how they died. “Their death does not define who they are. It’s how they lived their lives.”

She said Jesse was a very generous, loving person. “People came up to me and would say that they knew if Jesse was there, they had a friend in the room,” she said. “Unfortunately, he was also battling depression.”

She said people often ask her how she stayed so upbeat after Jesse’s death.

“I said to myself, my grandkids needed a living, loving grandma, and I was determined to be that,” she said.

Through Lifesource, Audre reached out to each of the families that received Jesse’s organs. She has met two of the recipients and one of them, Paul Lientz of North Dakota, has become very close to the Johnsons.

Lientz, who had cystic fibrosis, received Jesse’s lungs. Last summer on the 10th anniversary of the transplant, the Johnsons and Jesse’s son, now 11 years old, Jackson Johnson Nesmoe, traveled to Fargo to celebrate.

“Jackson lives with his mother and adopted father in Montgomery. He has known Paul for a number of years,” Audre said. “But now he’s getting to the age where he has a lot of curiosity. He gets a kick out of Paul and he asked to come to the celebration when he found out we were coming.”

And while the trip was, of course, a reminder of the loss her family experienced 10 years earlier, she says that meeting the two organ recipients was one of the most positive experiences in her life.

“Life is for the living,” she said. “You take the time to grieve the dead, but then you need to keep living.”