The Ultimate Gift

How one man became an organ donor–and changed the lives of seven strangers

Published in Summer 2017

As the oldest of six children and a former U.S. Marine, Douglas “Dougie” Cowan was used to helping others. If a friend needed a ride, he’d pick him up.

If a stranger needed money, he’d give it to him and say, “Go have a beer, it looks like you need it.”

If his sister needed a shoulder to cry on, he’d be there.

“He always wanted to be somebody’s big brother,” says his sister, Brenda Ryan. “He was a very compassionate and deep person.”

So it didn’t surprise Ryan when at age 18, Cowan registered as an organ donor. “He said, ‘I’m a Marine, and once a Marine, I’m always going to be someone’s hero,’” Ryan recalls. Registering ensured he could continue to help others, even in death, she says.

Cowan died at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center on December 31 at age 37, but through his donated corneas, left lung, kidneys, pancreas, liver, tissue and tendons, he helped save or improve the lives of seven people, Ryan says.

“All I could think about was how proud he would be that not only was his last wish fulfilled but that he gave hope to and saved so many lives,” she says.

Becoming a Donor

On any given day, more than 120,000 people in the United States and more than 3,500 people in Maryland are waiting for a lifesaving organ, says Kate Marych, RN, program coordinator for organ and tissue donation at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Living Legacy Foundation, which coordinates donation and transplantation in area hospitals, provides donor family support and educates hospitals and the general public about the power of donation.

“Donation is important because there’s a huge need for lifesaving donations, and the need is growing every day,” Marych says. “One person can
save up to eight lives with organ donation and help more than 50 people through tissue donation.”

In 2016, Johns Hopkins Bayview had 18 organ donors—the most it has ever had, she says.

To recognize the selfless decision to give the gift of life, the Medical Center installed a donor recognition wall in December featuring the names
of Johns Hopkins Bayview patients who donated organs and tissue between 2012 and 2016. Patients who donated organs and tissue prior to 2012 are featured on the wall at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. The donor wall also includes a touch-screen for patients and visitors, where they can learn more about organ donation.

There are several ways to become a potential organ donor. The most common is to notify the Motor Vehicle Administration when receiving or renewing a driver’s license. Registered donors receive a red heart on their license. Other ways include adding organ donation wishes into an
advanced directive or will and registering online with Donate Life Maryland—a non-profit organization established by the Living Legacy Foundation, the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland and the Washington Regional Transplant Community.

However people choose to register, the most important part of the process is talking with family members about their wishes, Marych says.

Leaving a Legacy

Inspired by her brother, Ryan also registered as an organ donor when she turned 18. Earlier this year, when her son and Cowan’s godson turned
18, he registered as well.

“My brother’s influence had an impact,” she says.

Ryan calls Cowan her “first friend in the world,” and losing him—especially at such a young age—was heartbreaking, she says. But she takes comfort in knowing he continues to make a difference in others’ lives. “I have a loss, but through my loss, people live,” she says.

Ryan calls the recipients of Cowan’s organs “part of my brother’s legacy.” To them, she simply says: “Thank you for letting my brother touch your lives.”

To register to be an organ, eye or tissue donor, visit