Health & Medicine

Mother turns tragedy into purpose

Roschelle Ogbuji talked about donating Anya's organs to Lifebanc. An image of Anya appeared in the Rose Parade. The image, a floragraph, is on the mantle behind Ogbuji.
Roschelle Ogbuji talked about donating Anya's organs to Lifebanc. An image of Anya appeared in the Rose Parade. The image, a floragraph, is on the mantle behind Ogbuji. MCT

At the darkest point in her life, Roschelle Ogbuji found a way to bring light into the lives of two other families — families she doesn't know; families she might never know.

What she does know for sure is that it was the right thing to do.

Her spiritual journey is such a compelling one that doctors, nurses and other staff at Akron Children's Hospital, its burn unit in particular, flocked to a reception for the woman and the mother they came to know four years ago.

They were curious and hard-pressed to believe that this woman who lost so much — the night of Dec. 1, 2007 — was still standing.

An electrical fire killed her three daughters and destroyed her home in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Imose, 6, and Chika, 2, died in the fire. Fourteen-month-old Anya, who was transported to the hospital's burn unit, lingered three days on life support.

The family's pain was palpable.

Even so and much to the surprise of the hospital's staff, Roschelle Ogbuji had come back to thank them for caring for Anya in such a tender way.

Her presence and her message were powerful.

Not out of her own strength or courage had she returned, Ogbuji insisted, but rather as part of "Anya's Purpose."

In fact, most everything that has happened in her life these past four years has been as a result of Anya's Purpose, she said.

As much as Ogbuji and her husband, Chimezie, a biomedical informatics researcher at Case Western Reserve University, had hoped, Anya's purpose was not to live but to live on.

So they made the decision to donate her organs, including her heart and lungs.

Because of that gift, two other children are alive today. Anya's heart was given to an 18-month-old boy, and her liver, pancreas and small intestine were given to another child.

By donating her daughter's organs, this mother has found purpose, too.

Waiting for transplants

Part of that purpose is advocating on behalf of Donate Life America and Lifebanc of Northeast Ohio, encouraging Americans to become organ donors.

"Another family needed what Anya had so they could experience the joy we had," was how Ogbuji, 37, explained it. "Anya was born to bring life to our family, and when she died, she brought life to another.

"Even though the circumstance was tragic, losing three children in one night, the saving grace was the gift of donation. Literally, beauty, life and hope came from ashes of our burned house," she said. "What I know for sure from this experience is that Anya was called by God with a purpose to give life to others, and my calling from God was to deliver the message of donate life."

Currently in the United States, more than 112,000 people are awaiting life-saving organ transplants. Thousands more need corneas and tissue to prevent or cure blindness, heal burns or save limbs.

Because of the Ogbujis' decision — made in the midst of unspeakable pain — and the work Roschelle Ogbuji is doing on behalf of organ donation, Anya was honored Jan. 2 at the 123rd Rose Parade on the Donate Life Float, which had as its theme "One More Day."

Anya's portrait on float

Anya was one of 72 faces of organ donors or transplant recipients depicted in floragraph portraits, made of organic floral materials including cinnamon, coffee and sugar.

"The floragraph portraits featured on huge floral timepieces remind us of the preciousness of time we have to spend with our loved ones," said Andrea Stricker, Ogbuji's friend and partner in a public relations venture.

Ogbuji and Stricker, who are African-American, made a special appeal for minorities to embrace the urgent message of organ donation.

"Everyone," Ogbuji said, "has a calling. Our real job in life is to figure out what that is and do it.

"I had a choice to live or to die on the inside. I chose life! Anya's life tells a story that brings about change. In every way and every day, I show people exactly how I am healing. I share our story and acknowledge that Anya's dying was not in vain.

"No life is too short to impact change."

Since the deaths of her three daughters, Ogbuji has given birth to two other daughters, ages 2 and 1.

Just before the tragedy, the Ogbujis — both college graduates — were living what they envisioned as the American dream. They were gainfully employed, and they had a house in the suburbs and a beautiful family.

To help them heal, the community — local companies and individual donors — came together to build them a new home. Stricker submitted the Ogbujis' story to Nate Berkus, a design expert with a TV show of the same name, who surprised the family by designing their living room in eight hours while Roschelle Ogbuji slept. Ogbuji, who says her life is one in progress, acknowledged that people deal with grief in various ways.

"Some (people) turn to vices," she said. "For me it was cupcakes. I ate my feelings for a while. I ate the grief instead of processing the feelings. I was up to 370 pounds." Today, Ogbuji is managing her weight and finding laughter in life again.

And she's refusing to allow cupcakes to trip her up.

"It's a thing called grace — God's grace," she said.

And, of course, Anya's Purpose.