Officials at South Bay hospital use 'Day of the Dead' to spotlight gift of life

On a holiday meant to honor those who’ve died, officials at Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Wednesday, recognized those whose deaths have meant a new life for others.

"I have had, unfortunately, had to tell parents they lost their child. Never did I ever think I’d be on the other side. But I was," said Dr. Sharon Castellanos.

A car accident on Father’s Day in 2006 claimed the life of her son, Brandon. The 18-year-old, 6’3" teddy bear of a man loved people, pets, and restoring cars. He was also mature enough to know he wanted to be an organ donor.

"He said that if anything happened to him, he wanted to donate. Because where he was going, he wasn’t going to need it," said Castellanos.

That early conversation was key as Brandon’s organs have helped 50 other people. Officials here have joined forces with Donor Network West to spread awareness about the need for more organ donors. Currently, over 120,000 people are on a waiting list for a transplant. But there are fewer than 20,000 such surgeries annually.

"Twenty-two people die each day waiting for organ transplants. And we’re hoping to help close that gap, and close that disparity, so that people are able to live, and people are able to celebrate the death of their loved ones by giving life to other people," said Dr. Judith Sanchez, a general gynecology & obstetrics healthcare provider at Valley Medical Center.

Brenda Gutierrez’s younger sister was able to help another person as well after being declared brain-dead three years ago.

"I was 23 years old when my sister died. And it was my first experience with grief," she said.

Out of the loss, and subsequent lung donation, another person was able to get a new lease on life.

"I honestly never thought I’d have the opportunity to meet one of her recipients. And the moment I met her and hugged her, I knew that gift was meant for her," said Gutierrez.

Officials said over the past couple of years, more than two dozen families have heeded the call to sign up and become organ donors. They’re hopeful first-hand stories and events, such as using Brandon’s refurbished car, peak the interest of school-age children and will help others choose to take the same step.

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter), @JesseKTVU and on Instagram, @jessegontv