In 1962, when Janis Babson was ten years old and understood that she was going to lose her battle with leukemia, the only thing she feared was that she would be forgotten. Small chance! Inspired by an appeal she had seen on television, she drew from her grieving parents a promise to donate her eyes to an eye bank when she died. And by this act of faith, by giving the gift of sight to two blind people who could never be known to her, she assured that she would never be forgotten.
Soon after her story appeared in the local press, the Ontario Eye Bank began getting more pledges of corneal tissue in a week that it had ever before had in a year. When the Reader's Digest article, The Triumph of Janis Babson by Lawrence Elliott appeared, it touched off an unparalleled surge of donors everywhere in the world. Soon after, an expanded version of the story was published as a book called A Little Girl's Gift.
Janis changed my life, too. We were almost the same age, and when I read her story in 1963, I felt as though I knew her and that she was telling me something. Decades would pass before I fully understood what it was. In those pioneering years of tissue transplants, heroic strides were made and many lives saved. Yet there were vast areas of darkness about the program; countless more lives could have been saved if more people understood the stakes and committed to taking the one small step, pledging to donate organs that offered a lifeline to another human.
And of course that's what Janis would have wanted me to do, to help send out that message. In 1990, I was inspired to expand Because I Care, a local campaign for marrow donors in Longview, Texas into an international campaign to raise awareness and recruit marrow donors. It changed the direction of my life.
Last May, fifty years passed since Janis' death. Appropriate ceremonies were held and a silver anniversary edition of A Little Girl's Gift was published with new introductions by the author and the Babson family. She is still very much with us. If you Google "Janis Babson," you will find innumerable entries; she has a long and detailed history in Wikopedia, a Facebook page, a web site, and the stream of letters to the Babson family is unending.
Her sister Stephany urges people to read Janis' story. "It will make her smile in heaven," she says. "It may even change your life."