As a breakout star on ABC’s hit medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, actress Katherine Heigl has earned fame, fortune and that rarest of Hollywood perks, job security. But her role on the show also has helped her deal with a painful personal tragedy.
When Heigl was only 7 years old, her adored 15-year-old brother Jason suffered massive head injuries in a car accident near their home in New Canaan, Conn. Rushed to intensive care, Jason clung to life for a week, unconscious.
“When my parents told me that he had died, I remember feeling betrayed,” Heigl says. “I knew they had shaved his head—and he had lost all his beautiful hair—because they had to operate, but I thought he was going to be fine.” It unnerved her even more when she learned that her parents had opted to donate Jason’s organs to people in need.
“I remember being so upset,” says Heigl. “If he didn’t have his organs, it didn’t bode well for his coming back.”
Heigl’s mother helped her three remaining children (Heigl has another older brother and sister) understand the decision-making process. “What she went through,” says Heigl, “losing a child, was so horrible and devastating that she couldn’t imagine sitting idly by if she had the opportunity to save another mother from having to go through it. And Jason was someone who was so beautifully alive and passionate about life. It was clearly what he would have wanted too.” Ultimately, Jason’s heart and kidneys saved the lives of three people; his corneas gave sight to two others.
Still, when Heigl, now 27, was offered the role of surgical intern Dr. Isobel “Izzie” Stevens on Grey’s Anatomy in 2004, she was worried. Would taking a job that required spending 16-hour days in a hospital—even a fake one—bring back painful memories of her brother’s death?
“I didn’t even watch ER,” says Heigl, who has always hated the smell of real hospitals. “The panic mode they’re always in made me anxious.”
Her attitude began to change when Grey’s third episode involved a brain-dead bike accident victim. The other TV doctors wanted to remove his organs for donation, “but my character was desperate for him to live,” Heigl says. After that show, she felt freed to speak out publicly about Jason’s death.
“I thought, ‘You know what? This is the perfect venue for me to start talking about organ donation, because I’m on a show that deals with it constantly,’” recalls Heigl. She wanted to let the world know the importance of organ donation—and how deeply it had affected her and her family. She became a spokesperson for Donate Life America, a nonprofit national coalition of organizations dedicated to inspiring organ, eye and tissue donation.
Nothing spoke her message louder than last season’s final dramatic episodes. Heigl’s character fell in love with a handsome patient named Denny, who was waiting for a heart transplant. Despite her risky, over-the-top maneuvers to get him to the top of the transplant list, he died. Millions of viewers wept. And the deeply personal resonance of the story no doubt contributed to Heigl’s moving performance.
“I realize that it’s a sensitive subject,” she says, “because nobody wants to talk about the ‘What if...’ What if something happened and you were tragically killed?”
Her mission now? To let people know how easy it is to sign up to become a donor or include it on your driver’s license. “For our family, it helped make sense of Jason’s death,” says Heigl. “It lent it a sort of grace.”