The local families gathered at an Eagle County commissioner meeting last week are bound by a tragic common link: the sudden deaths of their loved ones.
Those parents, siblings and friends also share another commonality. At the time of their deepest imaginable grief, they found some unexpected solace through the donation of their loved ones’ usable organs and tissue to people in need. In fact, several of the families noted that the donation of their loved ones organs was not a difficult decision.
“It helps them in their grief. They realize that their loved one does have a legacy … it is a very positive outcome,” said Jennifer Moe, communications outreach coordinator for the Donor Alliance. The Alliance is a federally designated, non-profit organ procurement organization and accredited tissue bank serving Colorado and Wyoming.
Moe and the local donor families gathered at the commissioner’s meeting in recognition of National Donate Life Month. The families, bearing photographs of their lost loved ones and blinking back tears, are eager to spread support of the donor program.
The county commissioners issued an official proclamation recognizing the “profound generosity” of the donor families, and encouraging people to consider giving the gift of life by registering as organ, eye and tissue donors.
Donor family members hope to spike grassroots awareness of the importance of organ and tissue donation opportunities through publicity and by stringing banners and posting “Donate Life” flags on “window clings” and posters at local businesses.
Skylar Hootman and CJ Spiegel
The stories of the donor families are likely familiar to people who have lived in the valley for any amount of time. Chris and Susan Spiegel of Gypsum lost two children to car accidents. Their teenage son, Skylar Hootman, 16, was killed in a Homecoming night accident in September 2002. The loss of the popular student, who enjoyed baseball, ski racing and was a good scholar, rocked the community. Due to circumstances at the time, there was no organ or tissue donation.
Two years later, tragedy struck again. The Spiegel’s younger son, CJ, 7, a kid who loved the outdoors, died after being hit by a car in Grand Junction.
Susan said she did not hesitate to sign the donor papers. She takes comfort in knowing that one of CJ’s corneas is now providing vision to a recipient. The second cornea was used for stem cell research. She follows up periodically with the Donor Alliance to see if other tissue has been used (some tissue can be stored for years).
Jake Brock, a red-haired kid with a big grin, grew up in Eagle. He was a good kid, who knew how to enjoy life. His parents, Marilyn and Vern Brock, arrived at the county building with a huge portrait of a smiling Jake completely covered in mud after a driving adventure with friends.
Jake, 20, was a freshman at Mesa State College in March 2007 when a drunk driver on Interstate 70 near Grand Junction killed him and his girlfriend, Jennifer Kois. Because of his injuries, not all of Jake’s organs could be donated; but some tissues and his corneas were usable, recalls his mother, Marilyn.
“It is pretty cool to think that somebody is able to walk or see (because of Jake),” said Marilyn. Vern, a long-time member of the local Lions Club service organization, was particularly gratified to receive a letter from Lions Club International recognizing the donation of Jake’s corneas. The Lions Club sponsors an eye bank for sight-saving procedures.
Several of the donor families commented on the ability of the Donor Alliance and its network of medical professionals to be able to react quickly to get needed organs to recipients.
Renee Scriver of Eagle remembers standing with her 16-year-old son, Dustin, at the Driver’s License Bureau when he signed up to be an organ donor as he received his first coveted license. A few years later, on Aug. 15, 2007, Dustin, 22, was killed when a semi-truck plowed into his car while he was halted at a construction stop on I-70 at Vail.
The Scrivers know that six of Dustin’s organs were donated. They have received a letter from a man who can walk again because of the tendons that came from Dustin’s knee.
“There is for sure some comfort in knowing that,” said Scriver.
There was no sign of a problem when Terry Thompson, 56, of Gypsum headed out to participate in the traditional Gypsum Daze 5K run July 20, 2008. Thompson, a plumber who also worked as a mechanical technician, was well known in the community after years of coaching soccer and baseball teams for his children and grandchildren.
But after completing the run, Thompson collapsed, and was unable to recover from the resulting head injury. His wife, Isabel (Isi) and their two grown children agreed to the organ donations.
The Donor Alliance offers donor families the opportunity to check in through confidential correspondence. Families can write letters requesting information about how organs or tissue were used. If recipients are willing, they can be put in touch with their families.
A few years ago, Isi and her family were able to meet the 10-year-old boy who received a part of Terry’s liver. The boy walked the Gypsum Daze 5K with the Thompson family.
“We have seen life-long bonds between donor families and recipients,” said Moe.
The donation process inspired Isi to participate in a several-day training class about the organ donor process. She staffs an information booth at the Eagle County Fair and 9Health Fair, answering questions and spreading the word about the benefits of the program.
Isi arrived at the courthouse carrying a quilt she had made that incorporated photographs of Terry into the geometric squares.
Moe said events such as the Eagle County proclamation help to educate communities about the need and benefits of being a tissue donor.
“A single donor can save up to eight lives,” she said. The solid organs that are typically donated include heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, small intestine and corneas.
The Donor Alliance works with all hospitals in the state of Colorado. The organization acts quickly when notified of a potential donor, sending in experts to evaluate the donor organ potential and working with the families involved on both the donor and recipient ends. An after-care coordinator works with the transplant center and the families to communicate the basic facts of where tissues and organs go.
Everyone can register to be an organ donor. The process is particularly easy in Colorado, where people can be registered as a donor by simply answering “yes” to the question while applying for a driver’s license. Moe notes that in Colorado, 67 percent of the people who go through the driver’s license offices say “yes” to donor designation.
Moe said a statewide study last year of people who chose not to register as donors revealed many were misinformed. One common problem is people ruling themselves out as donors because of age, or health issues.
“In fact, everyone can register. You’d be surprised what organs are valuable,” she notes.
The local families who have come into contact with the organ donor program are certainly believers. They know first hand the value of the gift of life.