Sarah Smile

I have no reach of thought to comprehend
the meaning of our life or see the end
we serve, but know our limits are not birth
and death, the three dimensions of this Earth.
I have a sense but dimly understood
but still a sense of being used for good…

— Excerpted from “Anything Less Than Utter Trust” by James Dillet Freeman


Everything is still so fresh, barely five months ago now when Julie Lopata’s 18-year-old daughter—Sarah Elizabeth Dillon—lost her young life in an automobile accident.

But despite the numbness, grieving and profound sense of loss, Julie discovered an inner strength, resilience, and purpose she unknowingly possessed. And that speaks directly to her determination to save the lives of others.


A Blessing to All

In Honor of Sarah

On April 7, 2012, Julie Lopata, her family and her triathlete mates—The Red Ladies—are participating in the 17th annual Run for Life in Topeka to honor Sarah Elizabeth Dillon. The run, created to honor families whose members were either organ donors or recipients—like Sarah’s—and to promote organ and tissue donation awareness, is a 10-mile course open to runners, race-walkers, wheelchair competitors, and relay teams.

Proceeds benefit the Topeka Organ Transplant Organization (TOTO), a nonprofit support group for transplant recipient candidates, transplant recipients, organ donor family members, and living organ donors in need of financial assistance for transplant-related expenses.

To participate or make a donation in honor of Sarah Elizabeth Dillon, visit

A 2011 graduate of Blue Valley Northwest High School and student at Johnson County Community College, Sarah had decided upon a social work career.

“She had an affinity for helping others, and especially wanted to work with kids with learning disabilities,” Julie says. “As a child she had reading issues and was in learning disability classes. So she bonded with others with similar issues.”

Vibrant, confident, creative, and fiercely independent, Sarah had numerous interests and was somewhat of a dog and cat whisperer, Julie says, often volunteering to help and foster animals.

“Whatever the need, she jumped right in. We always had sick animals at our house because she had a special gift for dealing with them,” she says.

On Thanksgiving Day 2011, while driving to meet friends, Sarah was broadsided. Her car rolled several times and Sarah was ejected.
“There is still some question whether she was wearing her seatbelt or if it malfunctioned,” says Julie, “but if it worked, she would have been hanging upside down in her car alive.”

That’s the message Julie wants everyone, particularly teens, to take to heart. “Kids think they are invincible and are not going to die, but seatbelts are so important,” she says.


The Gift of Life

Buckle Up and Arrive Alive

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for youth ages 15-20 in America, and that mile for mile, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers. And, teens buckle up far less frequently than adults. Learn more about the annual NHTSA National Seat Belt Enforcement Mobilization campaign at

Major life changes are often difficult. But if we choose to acknowledge it, there is a blessing and a lesson in everything.
When Sarah got her driver’s license, she had asked about organ donation.

“Our whole family had designated ourselves as donors,” Julie explains, “so I told her that people sometimes need organs, and if we should die this is a way we can help. When you explain this to your child you don’t think about it, or imagine one day having to donate your child’s organs.”

Sarah’s accident connected her family with Midwest Transplant Network (MTN).

Located in Westwood, Kansas, MTN is a federally certified not-for-profit Organ Procurement Organization dedicated to organ and tissue procurement and public awareness exclusively for Kansas and the western two-thirds of Missouri. According to Hospital Services Coordinator Courtney Root, more than 113,000 people in the U.S. are awaiting a life-saving organ transplant.
“Another person is added to the list every 10 minutes and 18 people die every day while waiting,” says Root. “This list is increasing at an alarming rate, but the number of transplants performed every year stays relatively stagnant. As an organ donor, one person can save up to eight lives and one tissue donor can improve the lives of nearly 50 people.”

According to Root, dispelling the many myths about organ donation is paramount to saving more lives.
“Some of the more common myths we hear, for example, are that people don’t think their organs and/or tissue can be donated because of their medical history or age. The truth is that donor suitability is determined on a case-by-case basis, and our current age criteria is from 0 to 80,” Root explains.

Another myth is that the wealthy can be “moved to the top of the list.” Not so, says Root.
“The organ allocation and distribution system is blind to wealth or social status,” she says. “The length of time it takes to receive a transplant is governed by many factors, including blood type, length of time on the list, severity of illness, and other medical criteria. Factors such as race, gender, age, income, or celebrity status are never considered when determining who receives an organ.”

Additionally, there is no cost to the donor or their family for organ or tissue donation.
Despite the myths, Root says, “A majority of U.S. adults wish to be organ and/or tissue donors, and more than 100 million Americans have joined the National Donor Registry through their state registries. Nevertheless, the need is still great.”

Ultimately Sarah bestowed the gift of life to six others, her family consenting to donate her kidneys, pancreas, liver, intestines, heart, skin, corneas, and bone marrow.

Throughout the harvesting procedure, Julie held Sarah’s hand, stroked her head and spoke to her.

“It was extremely difficult,” she recalls, “but I gained a lot of strength in that operating room being able to personally care for her.”
Although Julie knew Sarah’s organs would give others new life she says that watching Sarah’s heart being removed was the hardest.

“I later learned that the recipient was a 57-year old man with six kids. Now he will be able to watch them grow up, get married…” says Julie.


Life Comes Full Circle

It’s ironic that some 20 years ago Julie worked as a transplant financial coordinator.
“I only dealt with the money, but knew the funds were helping sick people,” she recalls. “That’s why my husband and I didn’t even have to think about donating Sarah’s organs.”

Today, Julie takes each day moment by moment.
“At times I’m filled with rage, and have this hollow feeling and a lot of pain,” says Julie.

But she admits that somehow the experience has given her life new meaning.
“I feel like when I buried Sarah, I buried my soul with her. But she’s made me a better mother to my older son, and a better person,” says Julie. “Sarah affected six lives in a positive way. I hope to push more for organ donation awareness, because it’s such a beautiful gift.”

To learn more about organ and tissue donation, visit: or