High school prevents drugs with human organs

Ninth-graders Jake Britton and Amie Sewell examine unhealthy lungs following Wednesday’s presentation by Colleen Williams. Surrounding students take photos with their cell phones.  - Liz Burlingame / Whidbey News-Times
Ninth-graders Jake Britton and Amie Sewell examine unhealthy lungs following Wednesday’s presentation by Colleen Williams. Surrounding students take photos with their cell phones.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame / Whidbey News-Times

Each of the organs had a story.

A runner and vegetarian died at 32 because he convinced himself it was OK to smoke marijuana. He died of a heart attack. Steve, the brain, died at age 42 from alcoholism.

With a gloved hand, ninth-grader Pamela Cuto touched the cerebellum and recoiled.

“It’s squishy,” she said.

Last Wednesday, real human kidneys, lungs, hearts, livers, stomachs and brains were spread along cafeteria tables at Oak Harbor High School.

“Organ lady” and registered nurse, Colleen Johnson was giving an interactive presentation, in which students can see and feel the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Her visit was green-lighted with the work of a concerned student; Midway High School senior Ethan Matthews.

Recognizing a growing drug problem in the community, Matthews approached the “Organ Ladies” for his high school project on promoting healthy living.

It was originally intended for Midway High School only, but a teacher helped him bring the presentation to OHHS. Over two days, 200 students were brought in at a time for Johnson’s talks.

“This shows students the reality,” Matthews said. “People can say 1,000 times how harmful something is, but sometimes you need a visual.”

For 90 minutes, Johnson showed off diseased lungs and clogged aortas, along with sharing her own history of substance use.

“I’m a nurse with emphysema,” she said, adding that she had her first cigarette in the 5th grade.

Her partying lifestyle led her to flunk out of high school with straight Fs. And at 25, a drunk drive home from a Seattle nightclub caused her to wreck a block away from home. Her face went through the windshield.

“I’ve had plastic surgery twice and have pins in my jaw,” she said. “When my little daughter came to see me at the hospital, she looked at me and screamed. That was her first childhood memory of me.”

Near the gymnasium stage, Johnson had a collection of letters from students she’s spoken to. One simply said, “Thank you for the proof.”

“They all pick up something different,” Johnson said.

Along with drugs and alcohol, Johnson also covered how to take keys away from a drunk friend and the effects of obesity.

“You guys will be the sum total of all the choices you make in your life,” she said before students examined the organs. “I hope that you are happy, and live healthy.”

Students carefully prodded the sickly organs which were placed beside healthy counterparts.

“I really don’t want that to happen to me,” freshman Marcel Weaver said, shaking his head.

Before leaving the gym, Matthews pointed out the anti-drug flyers canvassing the walls of the high school and hopes Johnson’s presentation will give them new meaning.

“This was something different and something I’ve never seen before. I think it will have a bigger impact,” Matthews said.

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