“I am here because of an organ donor.”
These are the words Sweet Briar College graduate Meredith Haga wrote on the black mortarboard she wore at the College’s 107th commencement on May 14. For her, nothing else could possibly express the emotion of that day. She was about to graduate from college. And she was alive.
The Bristol, Va., native had no idea her cap would be featured in a photo album on the College’s Facebook page. She certainly could not have imagined the viral tidal wave that swept that photo around the U.S.
As of Wednesday morning, the image, captured by Sweet Briar photographer Cassie Foster, had reached more than 1.17 million people. It garnered more than 3,900 likes and had been shared 8,600 times.
For a small women’s college in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, those numbers are a record. The College Facebook page has 20,000 fans and an average post reach of around 10,000.
The attention is mind-blowing to Haga. But the story she has lived is a miracle. Haga was 17 when an autoimmune disease that attacks the kidneys — crescentic IgA glomerulonephritis — took hold of her life. Six long rounds of chemotherapy marked the summer between her junior and senior year at Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg. The treatment worked, and Haga managed to graduate on time in 2011. She enrolled at Sweet Briar College.
It was just a few months later, in October of that year, when her kidneys failed. Haga spent nearly an entire year on dialysis, first at local centers and the last eight months at home.
“I sat in a dialysis chair and watched my life move on without me,” she recalls. “I knew that someone had to die so that I could live.”
Of course, kidney transplants can come from a living donor, but that is the less common scenario. According to the National Kidney Foundation and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), 13 people die each day waiting for a kidney transplant, and more than 3,000 new patients are added to the waiting list each month. On average, it takes 3.6 years before a match is found — from a living or deceased donor. The former comes with a better life expectancy.
Haga was lucky. Not only did she find a living donor, it also happened incredibly fast. Just 11 months in, on Sept. 4, 2012, her stepfather gave her one of his kidneys.
“He saved my life,” she says. “We never thought I would be able to celebrate my eighteenth birthday, let alone graduate college.”
And Haga didn’t waste any time. In January 2013, she re-enrolled at Sweet Briar, graduating just three-and-a-half years later with a degree in biology.
“I realized how short life is,” she says. “I knew that life was waiting for me, and I had a purpose.”
Haga says most college students think they are invincible. She’s trying to change that perception.
“My job in life is to raise awareness,” she says.
And it literally is her job — since graduation, Haga has been working as a public education coordinator for Tennessee Donor Services. She had interned with the organization throughout college, and in 2015 was nominated for the National Award for Volunteer Excellence by UNOS.
She is nothing short of passionate about her work. “I get to do what I love every day,” she says.
Another thing she loves is sports, and in June, she will compete in the Transplant Games of America, a multi-sport event open to donors, organ transplant recipients, bone marrow, corneal and tissue transplant recipients. Haga will be one of 25 members on the Tennessee Donor Services Team. She will compete in swimming, tennis and basketball, as well as run a 5K while at the games.
It’s just one more way for her to celebrate life — and spread the word about the issue closest to her heart.
In the meantime, her graduation photo continues to make its way around the internet, touching lives one “like” at a time.