Volunteering helps artist honor her husband’s generosity

Paul Flanders | Tissue donor

Jan Flanders met her husband, Paul, online in the spring of 2005. They had their first date a week later and the rest was history. “His response was the only one that made me smile,” said Jan. “No grammatical errors, no misspellings.”

Paul Flanders with his wife, JanThat makes sense because Paul, a native of Beverly, Mass., graduated with a degree in English from Tufts University. He would spend his career working in the newspaper industry as a proofreader, ad builder, graphic designer and paginator.

Paul was quiet and simple, but also funny, with a dry sense of humor. “A lot of people thought he was aloof, but it turned out he was taking everything in,” said Jan. “He wasn’t outgoing. He wouldn’t go in to work on Monday and ask what people did over the weekend. That drove me crazy, but we balanced each other very well and he really started to come out of his shell once we met.”

Paul was an avid sports fan. He was commissioner of a fantasy baseball league and had an encyclopedic knowledge when it came to baseball and music. He was also caring and compassionate. He had a love for cats and showed patience with coworkers in need of help.

Jan and Paul were together for nearly 13 years. On Dec. 29, 2017, Paul was showering when an artery burst in his heart. Jan came home and found him. She administered CPR, but when the ambulance came and didn’t put on the siren, she knew. The last words the couple ever exchanged were “I love you.”

While Paul’s life had ended, his story didn’t. He donated his corneas, restoring sight to two women. He helped 125 others through tissue donation. Almost five years to the date after his passing, Paul was honored when his floragraph, a portrait made of plant materials, was included on the Donate Life Float in the 2022 Rose Parade. “Just knowing that Paul is still out there all over the country – and I think in Canada – that gives me so much hope,” Jan said.

Prior to becoming a donor wife, Jan had been a tissue recipient. As a professional calligrapher, this was especially impactful for her. “I had to have thumb joint replacements, for which I received a donor tendon,” Jan said. “I also had to have the distal joint in my index finger fused, which required donor bone tissue. Without my donors I wouldn’t be able to write anymore. It saved my career.”

Her surgeon didn’t explain the gifts in a way that Jan understood at the time. As a donor family member, she has a new perspective, and now she’s on a mission to make sure the generosity of donors is fully appreciated. To promote awareness, she has become heavily involved in the cause of donation, including becoming a floragraph artist for the Rose Parade. She has appeared on several podcasts and online media. Since relocating to Richmond, she has also become a LifeNet Health volunteer, including appearing as a featured speaker at donor family events.

Her hope going forward is to educate people on how important it is to check the box to register as a donor. “We think of the big vital ones with organ donation,” she said. “You don’t really realize how vital bone, skin, veins, tendons, and heart valves are. Just by checking that box, one person can help so many. There’s a big shortage of donors and people need to check the box.”