Tribal member’s gift gives family, strangers comfort after unexpected death

Robert Kelly photos

By Hailey Palmer, Puyallup Tribal News

Puyallup Tribal member Robert Kelly’s unexpected death due to a brain aneurysm in February left a massive hole in his family – and made a profound impact in the lives of people he never knew.

Kelly leaves behind his partner, Katie, four children (Colbi, Robert Jr., Colton and Kaleb), his parents (Gene and Lizetta), sisters (Lindsey, Denene and Lori), aunts, uncles and many others.

Lizetta said not many people knew her son, a self-employed mechanic who was only 35 years old at the time of his death. She described him as a very private person who kept to himself and his family.

His family has found some healing through the tragedy – and a gift he made while he was alive has had a deep impact in people he never knew. Robert was an organ donor, and knowing he’s still helping others has given her strength, Lizetta said.

Before his organs were prepared for transplant, the family participated in an honor walk – a ceremonial event to commemorate a patient whose organs are donated – at Tacoma General Hospital.

“Everyone from our Tribal Council was there … 40 people showed up for this walk of honor at the hospital that day,” Lizetta said. “They sang, they drummed, and every single one of these 40 people said something about Robert and his family. These people were not invited. They came because they wanted to be there. I want that to be known – nobody needs an invitation to be there. When somebody needs you, you know in your heart where you need to be.”

Later, Robert’s family received letters from the hospital about some of the recipients of Robert’s organs.

The letters were sealed so the family could choose where and when to open them. No names would be given, only enough details to give them a sense of how Robert had touched others’ lives. They opened the letters on Easter.

His heart went to a 52-year-old woman who has two young daughters.

A man in his 50s received his liver.
One of his kidneys went to a mother in her 30s. The other went to a man.

“Robert has given these four people a gift,” Lizetta said. “I know that there’s a woman out there who is going to be able to raise her children.”

The hospital also was able to take skin grafts to aid burn victims and veins to help other patients.

Lizetta said she didn’t know Robert was an organ donor until he died.

“When my husband took him to get his driver’s license when he was 16 his dad told him, ‘Well, I’m a donor,’” Lizetta said. “So, he did it because his dad did it.”

She said that knowing her son has touched so many others gives her a tremendous sense of pride and the family a source of comfort.

“It gives us strength and helps us heal,” she said. “He’s a dad, he’s a son, he’s a partner. There’s so many good things to say about him, but that’s the healing part. He did what he did, and I’m so proud to be his mom.”

In 2023, there were 46,632 organ transplants performed from both living and deceased donors in the United States, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Of those transplants, 877 were in the state of Washington.

Washington residents can register as organ donors at their local DMV or online at

Lizetta said she wants more people to be aware of organ donations. Even though Robert is no longer here, Lizetta and the family know he’s alive through the people he was able to help.

“The story is that he still lives,” she said.

Photos courtesy of Lizetta Kelly