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‘Always playing superhero’

Bret Hartman/Vail DailySusan and Chris Spiegel hold a photo of their son CJ who died last year in a car accident. The Spiegel's donated CJ's organs and are organizing a golf tournament at Eagle Ranch which the proceeds will benefit organ donating.
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GYPSUM – There are no silver linings for parents whose children die, but good things can happen. Chris and Susan Spiegel are trying bring something good out of unspeakable loss.The Spiegels’ youngest son, CJ, died Nov. 8 of last year. Two days earlier, he had been hit by a car while riding his bicycle near his grandmother’s home in Grand Junction. When doctors said CJ couldn’t recover from his injuries, his parents made a difficult decision: to donate their son’s organs.Now, the Spiegels hope they can help more people than CJ could alone. Next month, the Spiegels will host a memorial golf tournament in CJ’s name. Money raised benefits the Donor Alliance, a Denver-based nonprofit group that works with both donor families and organ recipients.The first evening CJ lay in the hospital in Grand Junction, his parents talked to a representative of the Donor Alliance. Susan agreed immediately that CJ should help others live. It was an opportunity she didn’t take once, and couldn’t years later.Loss, and more lossSusan has lost three sons over the year, all by tragic accident. The first, Scotty, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when he was just 3 months old.”I was 24 or 25 when Scotty died,” Susan said. “The only thing they can harvest from a SIDS death is the eyes. I refused, I said ‘You’re not going to take my baby’s eyes.’ I regret it every day.”Years later, Skylar Hootman checked the organ donation box on his driver’s license the day he got it. His mom says her son was excited about the decision. He didn’t get the chance.Skylar, Susan’s son from her first marriage, had been raised by both Chris and Susan since he was 5. Chris had 11 good years as a dad to both Skylar and CJ. The evening of Sept. 28, 2002, Chris and Susan got the call most parents get only in their nightmares. Skylar, 16, had been killed in a one-car accident on Interstate 70 the night of Eagle Valley High School’s homecoming dance. Two other students, Laura Sandoval and Travis Hansbarger, both 17, survived.

“Every day you ask why,” Susan said. “How could they survive and Skylar didn’t.”Skylar was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. Because of his injuries and the fact his body wasn’t properly cared for at the scene, his organs were unusable.When CJ died two years later, his parents’ choice was easy.”It wasn’t even a choice,” Susan said.Saving livesA medical team flew in to Grand Junction, removed CJs heart, kidneys, liver and other organs. The Spiegels have heard from a few of the recipients, and know that one of CJ’s corneas is being used for a form of stem cell research at a hospital in Denver.Through their grief at the hospital, the Spiegels were able to tell their youngest good-bye, and tell him his fondest wish was coming true.”We told him, ‘Here’s your chance to be a super hero,'” Chris said. “He was always playing super hero. He’d take a pillowcase and make a cape out of it.” But there are no silver linings. Knowing CJ saved several lives, and may save the sight of others, is helpful. But CJ isn’t around.The Spiegels recently participated in a “Donor Dash,” a fund-raiser for the Donor Alliance. At the end of the 5-kilometer walk, a number of donor recipients thanked the families of donors as they crossed the finish line.”It’s bittersweet,” said Bethe Wright, a friend of the family. On the other side of the grief donors feel is the bittersweet joy of recipients who are alive because of the loss of another.

“I have a client who’s a kidney recipient,” Wright said. “He told me he worked on his letter for six months. He just couldn’t express the gratitude he felt.”Those letters are screened by the Donor Alliance, and donors and recipients only communicate if both parties agreed. But it’s important for donor families to hear from recipients.”I’m not at the point I want to meet the recipients yet,” Susan said. “But I want to know they’re OK. It’s scary to write to us, but let us know how you’re doing.”How they’re doingAfter Skylar’s death, Chris and Susan poured their hearts into taking care of CJ, helping him cope with the death of his big brother. When their happy, healthy, silly 7-year-old died, there was nothing.”You really lose your identity,” Susan said. “Now I’m not a mom. You have to find a new purpose in life.”That’s been hard. “The day CJ died, you couldn’t say we’d be here another week,” Susan said. “Now it’s nine months later and somehow we’re still here.”A lot of it is thanks to the community,” she added. “If I didn’t have friends, I don’t know where I’d be.”Chris says their counselor, Dr. George McNeil, has been a rock. “I can’t say enough about him,” he said. “He’s come to our home. He’ll always call right back.”Time isn’t much of a healer. The Spiegels have moved within the valley since CJ’s death, but there are still pictures of the boys all over the house.



“There isn’t anything you do that doesn’t remind you of one of them,” Chris said. “Even something like a ball that one of them knocked a candle over with.”The nights at home are the worst,” he said. The golf tournament might help. A little. Susan got the idea for the event when playing at Eagle Ranch one day with her friends.”One day I just said, ‘We should have a tournament,'” she said. Players will raise money for the Donor Alliance, but the Spiegels hope participants learn a little, and, more important, sign up to be organ donors.”If everyone signs up to be a donor that day, it’ll be huge,” Wright said. “I don’t know if a golf tournament is to help me,” Susan added. “But I’ll benefit to know there’s somebody who might be helped by it.”Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado


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