Years after Laurie Mahoney lost her son, his final gift came back to her, to help her heal.

"I carried him for nine months," she said. "And now he's carrying me."

Ryan Briese has been with his mother through every step since a surgery in 2019 that replaced the shredded tendons of her knee with donor tissue. Ryan's tissue, donated after his death two years before.

Ryan was a thoughtful, funny, generous soul. The kind of kid who would give away his own hockey gear to friends who couldn't afford equipment of their own.

When it was time to get his first driver's license, his mother pointed out the box that every Minnesotan can check to become an organ and tissue donor. She explained to the 16-year-old what that meant.

"He looked at me with those eyes – he had big, beautiful blue eyes," she said. "He said, 'Undoubtedly, I want to do that, Mom. But don't worry, I will never die before you."

But he did die first, in 2017, when he was just 34 years old. Through the shock and heartbreak of that day, Mahoney remembered the little heart on her son's license and knew what he would have wanted.

"His soul was in heaven," she said. "So why not use this gift to help others?"

The family signed off on the paperwork, and medical teams recovered Ryan's skin, bones, connective tissues and the valves of his heart. There was comfort in the idea that part of Ryan was still out there, helping others like he had all his life.

Less than two years later, Mahoney took a bad fall on a ski slope. It would take surgery to get her off crutches and back on her feet. It would also take donor tissue.

She reached out to the tissue bank, doubtful that any of the grafts they'd collected would still be available after so long. But thanks to a clerical mix-up, Ryan's tissues were still available, and she was a match. His very first match.

"To me, it was like he was orchestrating this from heaven," said Mahoney, who was healed enough by the end of that year to walk the 7-mile route of the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif., celebrating Ryan alongside a parade float filled with other organ donor families and recipients.

"His death wasn't just a period" that cut off the story of her son's life, Mahoney said. "He's living on through other people. He's healed other people."

They made 425 grafts out of Ryan's donated tissues. Three of them went to his mother.

The rest have gone to people in 15 states and 11 different countries. When she's in one of those states, Mahoney finds herself scanning the crowds, wondering which other lives Ryan might have touched.

She now works as an ambassador for the organ and tissue nonprofit LifeSource, encouraging other families to talk about donation now, while they can.

As of Friday, there were 2,275 Minnesotans waiting for a lifesaving transplant. In any given week, 17 people die without getting one.

April is National Donate Life Month. A good time to point out that only 56% of Minnesotans have that little organ donation heart on our licenses.

In 2022, LifeSource celebrated a record increase in donations from Minnesota: 244 organ donors, 1,058 tissue donors.

Organ donation gets the big headlines, but tissue donors like Ryan have the ability to help a staggering number of people. Their donated tissues restore eyesight, mend broken bones, patch root canals, repair faulty heart valves, graft burned skin and speed medical research.

Last year, the youngest tissue donor recorded at the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office was 3 months old. The oldest donor was 100.

The baby's heart valves may have saved a stranger's child. The tough pericardium that had protected one heart for a century went on to protect a new life. Tissue donation is a gift, an act of love, without an age limit.

All the love Laurie Mahoney put into her son, he put out into the world when he became an organ and tissue donor. And one day, all that love came back to her.

You can register to become an organ donor when you register for a driver's license, state ID, fishing or hunting license or — easiest of all — online at Donate Life Minnesota.

"Don't take your organs to heaven," Mahoney said. "God knows, we need them here."