Carolyn Johnson; An untimely death brings the gift of life to others

Carolyn Johnson
By : 
Kristin Burdey
Tri-County Record

Marking “organ donor” on a driver license, or expressing that desire to a loved one, is one thing. Yet actually facing that vital crossroads—especially when the death of a loved one is shocking and all-too-soon—is another matter entirely. 

 But for the family of 57-year old Carolyn Johnson, who passed away just before her favorite holiday last month, cementing her legacy though organ donation was never in doubt. Though the topic had not been discussed at length, the family knew from casual conversation that Carolyn was an organ donor.

“We didn’t skip a beat. We knew,” Mark Johnson recalled.. “We also could have guessed just because of what kind of a person she was. At that point we knew we had to do whatever we could to have a successful outcome.” 

Unexpected tragedy

Mark and Carolyn Johnson had just finished up their twenty-first year of providing lefse to the world for Christmas as owners and operators of Norsland Lefse in Rushford. The holiday season is a whirlwind of activity at Norsland, and the couple was eager for a much-deserved respite with their family. “We were happy to be at the point where we could catch our breath and say that we had made it,” recalls Mark of the Saturday before Christmas. 

Newlyweds Paige Martin-Stanley (daughter) and husband Charles had just arrived the night before, home for the holiday from Iowa City, Son Marshall was on Christmas break from Upper Iowa University, and a night of relaxation and togetherness seemed like the perfect finish to a busy week and a busy season. The family headed to LaCrosse, Wis., where the plan was to send the boys off to a basketball game while the girls did their own thing, which would probably include some Christmas shopping. The family went out for supper and had a delightful time. 

However, shortly after parting ways, Mark received a text from Paige stating that her mother had come down with a headache and wanted to go home to lie down. “It concerned me at the time,” Mark recalls, knowing that normally a headache would not slow his wife down, particularly when out enjoying an evening with family. “I knew then that something wasn’t right.” 

Paige took Carolyn back to their country home south of Rushford, where she promptly headed upstairs to rest. As she prepared a cold compress for her mom, Paige heard a thump upstairs. She raced upstairs to find her mother collapsed in the bathroom. After dialing 911 Paige started CPR, knowing from the outset that the situation was very serious. 

Mark, Charles, and Marshall rushed home, meeting the ambulance en route to LaCrosse before arriving in Houston, where the Sheriff had driven Paige to meet up with her family. They arrived at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in LaCrosse shortly behind the ambulance.

The emergency crew was able to revive Carolyn, who had not been breathing, and re-establish vital signs. An immediate concern for the team was that she had been without oxygen for 40 minutes. After an anxious wait in the emergency room,  the family learned that Carolyn had suffered a major hemorrhage in her brain, most likely the result of a burst aneurysm, something they could not have ever seen coming. 

This pronouncement was sudden and shocking to a family who had zero indication that anything was wrong with Carolyn just a short time prior. “Just an hour before we had been having a beautiful supper, looking forward to celebrating the holidays, and now we were at the hospital, hearing that there was nothing that could be done for her,” Mark recalls soberly. Additional testing was required through the night and on into Sunday, and at 6:22 pm on Sunday, Dec. 23, Carolyn Johnson was pronounced dead.

Saying goodbye

As noted, the Johnson family wasted little time in informing doctors that Carolyn was a willing donor. Shortly after, a  transplant team from the UW-Madison was on-site.

“The process of matching up a donor with recipients takes time – much more than people probably realize,” explains Mark. “With all the testing that needs to take place, as well as determining the locations of the recipients, it probably takes about 48-72 hours.” The process was already going Sunday night, and it was a race against the clock to determine which of Carolyn’s organs were viable and to contact the recipients. 

The family is keenly aware of the value of Carolyn’s gift. “There are three lives that have been saved already as a result of Carolyn’s donations. There are three families that have received the best Christmas present ever.” 

After initially being admitted to the hospital, the family was able to spend four more nights with their precious wife and mother, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. “We all appreciated being able to spend one more Christmas with her,” Mark shares. They spent the holiday by her bedside, watching as the doctors cared for Carolyn, keeping her alive for the impending surgery, although they did not know exactly when that would happen. “We spent a lot of time playing music,” Paige shared. This included Christmas music, because Carolyn loved Christmas. 

Something unique that the family stumbled upon during this time came courtesy of Carolyn’s Facebook page. Carolyn was not one to frequently share things on social media, but just recently in October she had shared a rather significant video. “The post included a video of an ‘Organ Donor Walk of Respect’ where every available staff member stood along the sides of the halls as a sign of respect for the organ donor and their family,” Paige shared later on her own Facebook page. 

That the video had so deeply touched Carolyn’s heart was like a confirmation to the family that they were doing exactly what she had desired.

It was after 9 p.m. on Christmas Day when the family received word that they would be ready to go in the morning. In a way they were grateful that the surgery did not end up taking place on Christmas itself, which they had known was a possibility. “At that point we knew it would be an early morning surgery,” said Mark. So before four o’clock on the morning of December 26, the Johnsons met with the surgical team. “During that time we were able to share with the surgeons how we felt about Carolyn, and what she meant to us. We were able to tell them to take good care of her.”

When all the preparations had been made, the family was then readied to participate in the ultimate tribute to their wife and mother: The Honor Walk that had so moved Carolyn just months before. An Honor Walk takes place when a person who has made the decision to donate their organs is wheeled down the hallway of the hospital to the operating room. 

All available hospital staff lines the hallway, as well as friends and family of the donor. “Because you Loved Me” by Celine Dion was selected by the family to play throughout the hospital while the walk took place, and the lyrics make it clear why: 

“You were my strength when I was weak;
You were my voice when I couldn't speak;
You were my eyes when I couldn't see;
You saw the best there was in me;
Lifted me up when I couldn't reach;
You gave me faith 'cause you believed;
I'm everything I am
Because you loved me”

The video of Carolyn’s Walk of Respect, posted on Paige’s Facebook page, has at present been viewed over 50,000 times and shared nearly 500 times. Immediately after the honor walk, a flag-raising ceremony was held outside of Gundersen hospital, in which a Donate Life flag was raised in honor of Carolyn.

Carolyn’s Legacy

Carolyn’s liver and both of her kidneys were transplanted that Wednesday morning, with plans to donate her eyes and additional tissues in the works. Will her survivors ever meet the recipients saved by her donation? Time will tell. “We are going to draft a letter and reach out to the recipients. We want to tell them who she was, and to assure them that we wish them the best. The correspondence will go out, and that’s all that we know so far.” 

As the surgery and donation took place in Wisconsin, the Johnsons may take part in an official ceremony later this year. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker hosts an event at the Executive Residence called “The Gift of Life Medal Ceremony.” The 25thAnnual Ceremony was held in 2018, honoring the 85 organ donors who had given the gift of life through organ, tissue, and eye donation in Wisconsin the previous year. 

This event celebrates the selfless gifts of the donors, the lives that are saved, and also raises awareness by encouraging others to become organ donors. Gundersen in LaCrosse has an average of 10-12 donor operations per year in a state that averages about 300 annually. Carolyn was the ninth donor of 2018. “There are so many recipients waiting, but so few donors,” Mark says, noting that there are so many factors that go into each donation to determine feasibility, such as the circumstances surrounding the death. “Things have to fall in place just right.”

At present, the family is taking life as it comes. “It’s been such a rollercoaster,” Mark said. “We haven’t been able to breathe yet. It’s really been just a surreal moment – the mind can’t put it all together. How can you describe something for which there are no words?” 

The family has been all together throughout the ordeal, but now the time draws nigh for Marshall to return back to his undergraduate studies at Fayette and Charles to resume his studies in pursuit of a doctorate in higher education. Paige left her position as a social worker and moved home, where she will be exploring options for the future. 

As for Norsland Lefse, the long-term plans are unknown. “Production is shut down after the holiday anyway,” Mark said. While the café is still open at present, Carolyn was always the one who ran the restaurant. “She was our rock there, too – not just in our household.” The Johnsons are well aware that they do not grieve alone, as Carolyn was also active at Rushford Lutheran Church, 4H, and anything her children were involved in, leaving a gaping hole in the Rushford Peterson Valley. 

“They lost one of their own – she was all of ours. The community has a lot of pain, and so do we. We’re still trying to figure this all out – it hasn’t really hit home yet.” When asked what concerned members of the community could do for them, Mark replied matter-of-factly, “Register to be an organ donor. That is Carolyn’s legacy. It’s not just something for right now, but something that will have an impact for years to come. Carolyn was the best wife, mother, daughter, sister, and aunt that we could have ever hoped for. We feel very blessed to have had the time with her that we did.’


Beautiful tribute to my mother and hero.

Special thoughts and prayers for you and your family, Mark! Hugs from an old classmate! God bless!