For seven human beings and their families, Friday, August 29, 2014, would be a long hot summer day unlike any other.
Daniel McConnell was a 53-year-old financial advisor, married for 28 years with two sons and a daughter. In 1998 he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. His kidneys had begun to fail 36 months ago so he began dialysis and was placed on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Over the last 12 weeks, his health had deteriorated steadily, and as he grew weaker his family began to fear the worst.
Mark Hertzman, was a 51-year-old factory worker, married with one daughter. Because he rarely saw a doctor, he had unfortunately lived for years with uncontrolled hypertension which eventually damaged his kidneys making a transplant necessary for any chance at long-term survival. Having been on the organ donor list for almost 40 months, he had lost hope and put all of his affairs in order.
Maria Alvarez was a 31-year-old stay at home mom of three little girls. She had been exposed to chemicals at a part-time job she had during college. Years later this had led to severe respiratory distress. Shortly after her youngest daughter’s second birthday it was determined that Maria required a lung transplant. She had been on the waiting list for 6 months. If she did not receive a transplant soon her daughters were going to lose their mother.
Ricky Eastman was 22 years old. He loved baseball and all forms of science fiction. For the last year, he had worked as a stocker at a large discount retailer. On the afternoon of the 28th, he fell and struck his head. His mother, father, and sister were distraught when the doctors told them the prognosis was grim. The Eastman family would soon be facing a decision that would change their lives forever.
Jack Simmons was a 46-year-old small business owner who was married but had no children. He had contracted hepatitis C through a blood transfusion. His disease had progressed slowly but eventually, the damage to his liver was significant. He had been on the transplant list for 12 months. He became depressed over his inability to work, and his wife was as concerned about his mental health as she was about his physical health.
Ashley Woods was an only child whose parents had divorced when she was three. Now 17, she was a vivacious young lady who was an honor student and involved in many activities. She enjoyed playing the piano, she loved her two dogs – but she was rapidly losing her eyesight due to Keratoconus. After exhausting every possible treatment she had been placed on the waiting list to receive a corneal transplant several weeks earlier.
Russell Moore was a 42-year-old insurance agent. His second marriage had produced three children who he loved dearly. He had always led an active life, playing both golf and tennis, but a severe heart attack in 2011 had damaged his heart tissue leading to Cardiomyopathy. Frustrated that he could no longer do the things he enjoyed, he had been waiting on the transplant list for almost 18 months.
On this unremarkable late summer day, these seven individuals were to become eternally linked as six of them regained their lives because the seventh person’s life was lost.
The conversation took place in a small non-denominational chapel buried deep within the heart of the enormous medical facility.
Charles Eastman, his wife Patricia and their 24-year-old daughter Michelle were joined by a neurologist, several surgeons and assorted other members of the transplant team. Patricia and Michelle both cried softly as Charles struggled to keep his hands from shaking. Weeks later they would try to reconstruct exactly what was said, but most of it was a grief-stricken blur.
The moment they did remember, and would never forget, was when they were told that their son had suffered “brain death”. It was such a horrifying term because it burned the image of their loved one being alive and dead at the same time into their minds forever. It brutally forced them to accept the fact that Ricky’s body was present but the person was not. The medical team had years of experience dealing with families at such an excruciating time so they were genuinely compassionate and understanding, but they also knew that time was of the essence.
The surgeons did not want to place too much pressure on a family that was already devastated by the personal tragedy they were experiencing, but many lives were at stake, not just Ricky’s. There was a list of individuals that could potentially be saved by their son, so as always, it was a delicate balance to respect the humanity of everyone involved while also navigating the intense medical realities that were complicated by the crush of time. As gently as they could they guided the family towards making a decision, one way or the other, on the fate of their child.
Charles and Patricia were fully aware that their son wanted to be an organ donor. They knew without a doubt that it was his wish and desire to help others, but the situation they faced was utterly heartbreaking. It is inconceivable to any parent that they could ever find themselves in such a desperate situation that they would be required to look into the face of their child and make the decision to end their life. But it was happening to the Eastman family, and they had to decide as soon as possible.
Over and over they were assured that every possible test had been performed to be certain of Ricky’s condition. It was explained in several different ways that there was absolutely no chance of ever having their son back. His brain stem had been destroyed, and the only reason he was breathing now was because of the relentless advancements made in medical technology. Although those advancements, at this moment, seemed cold and heartless, they also provided the slender thread of hope that other families were clinging to as they waited for the organs that could save the lives of their loved ones.
Finally, after listening to all the medical explanations, hearing the bleak diagnosis and comprehending exactly what kind of future Ricky would have, the family asked for a few minutes alone. All three of them knew what they should do. They understood completely that their agony could turn into exultant joy for others. They realized that burying their son would resurrect other lives. But still, they could not get past the fact that if nothing changed, they could at least be with him. They could touch his hand, stroke his hair and kiss his face. Whether he heard them or not they could still tell him how much he was loved. And that was the excruciating contradiction; what kind of parental love allows their child to die?
In the end, it was Ricky’s desire to help others that guided them to the conclusion that his compassion should be honored. Mentally and emotionally exhausted from everything they had endured in the last 48 hours they wearily called the medical team back into the room.
Their decision was made.
As the next 12 months passed, everyone involved in the transplant procedure experienced their own struggles and victories. For the recipients, it was a second chance. They had each been given another opportunity at life, and they were all profoundly grateful. However, for Ricky’s family, it had been incredibly difficult to cope with their loss. But even in their pain, they were intensely interested in the people who their son had saved. They wanted to reach out to them and learn who they were and what had happened in their lives.
So one year later, on Saturday, August 29, 2015, Charles and Patricia hosted an event held at a community center entitled “A Celebration of Life”.
The invitations had been sent several months earlier and each of the families of the six organ recipients had accepted. Most lived in the immediate area, but several would be traveling from some distance away. The Eastmans had been thrilled when everyone responded favorably, and they were excited and anxious to meet the people whose lives had intersected with theirs.
The starting time was listed as 2:00 pm, but the first of the families arrived at 1:30. Every 10 minutes or so another car pulled in and by 2:15 there was only one family not present.
Everyone was met at the door by Charles and Patricia. All of the greetings were emotional and heartwarming but particularly when they met each individual recipient. The tears flowed freely when they came face to face with the person who was now alive because of their son. Complete strangers hugged and did not want to let go. Each man and woman that had received an organ was at a loss of how to properly convey the depths of their thanks and gratitude for the gift that Ricky had given them. It was overwhelming for everyone to witness such emotion involving people who had never met.
Finally, the last car pulled in. It was the Mark Hertzman family, but as Charles waved to them only two women stepped out of the vehicle. It was Mark’s wife Susan and her 22-year-old daughter Lori. Charles felt his body tense as he instantly realized the grim news he was about to hear. The women stepped to the door and a voice choked with both heartache and resignation,
Susan introduced herself as Mark’s widow. The weight of her words made Patricia begin to softly cry. Susan reached out and hugged her tightly pleading, “Please don’t feel sorry for us. You gave Mark ten extra months of life, and we made the most of that time.”
Her daughter stood beside them with tears streaming down her face. She looked at Charles and said, “I hope you don’t mind that we still came. My father wanted to meet you all so much – we just had to come and thank you in person.”
Charles put his arm around her shoulder, and whispered, “Thank you for coming. This gathering would not have been complete without you.”
With everyone now present, the four of them walked inside to join a celebration they would never forget.
After everyone took their seats, Charles, Patricia, and Michelle stood together at the front of the room next to an easel displaying a large photo of their son. Charles took a deep breath and said, “Thank you all so much for coming today. You have no idea what it means to us to get to meet you in person.”
He looked out compassionately at the assembled families and continued, “One year ago today the life of every person in this room changed forever. We all now share a bond that few others will ever experience or understand. We are tied together because of the brutal reality of life and death. We have faced physical, psychological and emotional challenges we were not sure we could overcome, but we did. And each of you has demonstrated the strength and power of the human spirit.”
Patricia nodded in agreement and then spoke as tears filled her eyes. “If he was alive, our son would be twenty-three. But of course, through you, he will continue to have an impact in life for decades to come. We miss him constantly, but there is great comfort in knowing that his sacrifice has made a dramatic difference in your lives. Seeing so many people together that have benefited from his sacrifice helps us come to terms with our loss. We loved Ricky unconditionally, and he loved us the same way. In a few minutes, we will tell you more about our amazing son, but first of all, we would like to offer each of you the opportunity, if you feel comfortable, to address the group and say a few words.”
A sense of anticipation spread through the room as the families welcomed the chance to publicly share their thanks and appreciation for what had happened in their lives during the last year. The room was transfixed as, one by one, the recipients began to express their profound gratitude to be alive.
The first to speak was Daniel McConnell. He turned to Charles and Patricia and said, “Thank you for inviting us all to this gathering. As a parent, I can’t even begin to comprehend the pain you’ve experienced with the loss of your son. But through your generosity you allowed your heartbreak to bring happiness to so many. There is no way any of us can ever repay you for what you did. The fact that you could overcome your own grief and think about others at such a devastating time shows your character and your humanity. It is a privilege to get to meet you and to find out more about your loved one.”
Next was 18-year-old Ashley Woods who had come with her mother. Looking over at Ricky’s photo she spoke in a grateful voice. “You can’t imagine the wonderful joy I feel to be able to see the face of the person who gave me back my sight. I will never forget what he looks like. Although my life did not hang in the balance, my condition had deteriorated to the point where I was giving up on all my aspirations. But Ricky’s amazing gift restored my hopes and dreams for the future. I just want to say that it’s a great pleasure to get to meet all of you, and I want to express my admiration and respect for Mr. and Mrs. Eastman and Michelle.”
When it was Susan Hertzman’s turn to speak she took a moment to compose herself and then she explained, “My husband Mark and I were married for 37 beautiful years, but tragically he died 6 weeks ago when his body finally rejected the donated kidney.” As she struggled to control her emotions she asked her daughter Lori to stand beside her and then she continued, “The ten extra months that Ricky gave us was the most meaningful time in our lives. Most importantly it gave Mark the opportunity to walk Lori down the aisle at her wedding. We can never thank you enough for your love and your sacrifice.”
Russell Moore spoke next. Slowly and thoughtfully he said, “I’m in the insurance business, and part of my job is to deal with the reality of life and death. It is something you learn to cope with in order to help people make wise decisions. However, when I was facing my own mortality it didn’t seem real at all. It was like a nightmare that wouldn’t end – but then one evening my phone rang and the compassion of your son made the nightmare disappear. Because of this experience, I will never look at life and death the same way again. There is no way I can properly thank your family for what you did for our family.”
Everyone’s attention turned to Jack Simmons as he carefully stood up with assistance from his wife. “My recovery has taken some time, and I’m still facing many challenges, but the first thing I do when I wake up each morning is to give thanks for your son because it was his sacrifice that allows me to enjoy another day of life.” Looking at Charles, Patricia, and Michelle he said, “My wife and I want you to know how much we appreciate being invited to this event so we can learn about your family. I will never forget you. Please accept my deepest gratitude for each of the 365 days Ricky has given me.”
Maria Alvarez spoke last. She turned to Patricia and said in a soft warm voice, “I am the mother of three little girls, and a year ago I did not think I would live to see them grow up. Now I have hope that I will, and that is because of your son. A few weeks ago my four-year-old wanted to know about the person who had donated their lungs so that Mommy could breathe again. I told her I didn’t know much about him just that his name was Ricky, but that I would find out today who this amazing person really was. My daughter told me that she loved Ricky because of what he did, and I told her I loved Ricky too. Thank you so much for bringing us all together.”
The Eastman family was visibly moved by what they had heard. In a tone of voice filled with respect, Charles addressed the gathering, “We want to thank each of you for coming today. Your presence here is a testament to your strength and resilience. Your incredible will to live and the tremendous courage you’ve shown in the face of death are qualities to be embraced and admired. We are honored to know you, and rest assured that you will always be welcome in our lives.”
Patricia took her husband’s hand and said, “We believed it was important that we got to meet each of you and that you got to meet our son. At first, we were not certain how to introduce you to Ricky, but eventually, we decided to let you see him for yourself. We would like to take the next few minutes to show you a brief video about his life, but I’m sure that what you will see is not what you are expecting. After the video, we will explain how our son came to be an organ donor.” As Charles and Patricia took their seats the lights dimmed and the 10-minute video began.
For the first time, the five living recipients had the opportunity to hear Ricky speak and to see him move. Initially, there was complete silence among those who were watching, but as the film continued people began to cry softly and tissues and handkerchiefs were brought out. Because what they saw in the video was not a strong robust 22-year-old young man but rather a small stooped different looking person whose movements and speech were startling. Certainly, this did not fit the image they had of someone who could save lives.
The people in the room sat and watched with stunned surprise as a young man with a developmental disability labored to verbally express his thoughts and struggled to walk with an unsteady gait. They were initially shocked by his physical appearance and speech pattern, but the longer they watched, the more they noticed his easy grin and unrestrained laughter both of which resulted from a natural warmth that he effortlessly projected. Slowly his joy and love for life began to overshadow his challenges, and soon their tears were replaced by smiles as they listened attentively so they could understand every word he said.
The video began with Ricky as a newborn going home from the hospital. Next came his first tentative steps. Although significantly delayed, he soon learned how to get around in his own distinctive way. The film then showed him as a small child enjoying birthday parties, failing spectacularly at his only attempt to roller skate and leaving for his first day of school. A moment in which he did not cry, but his mother did.
They watched him on a family camping trip, and they laughed at his uncontrollable excitement and delight upon catching his first fish. They saw him at home with his mom and dad where he could just be himself and know that he was completely loved. They were touched by the deep and caring relationship he had with his older sister Michelle. They witnessed his development into a teenager who valiantly attempted to keep up with others his age, but who was frequently left behind. They saw the pride on the faces of his parents as he received his high school diploma, and they saw how thrilled Ricky was on his first day of work.
As they watched the images of Ricky progressing through his brief life, each of the six families, knowing his eventual fate, were deeply affected by the unfailing happiness and optimism he radiated. The film lovingly captured the experiences and meaningful moments of a life just like any other, however, everyone in the room now understood that this was actually a person who was truly different – in the best possible way. This was someone who had the capacity to think of others and to see that the most important thing in life was to share your compassion.
The final scene of the video showed Ricky awkwardly walking in his backyard. He turned to the camera, smiled and waved. It was Tuesday, August 27, 2014.
Twenty-four hours later his brain ceased to function.
As the lights came on it was obvious that all of the guests had been touched by what they had just seen. Emotion permeated the room as people tried to make sense of why this individual, who seemed so innocent, had unfairly lost his life at such a young age.
Patricia stood up and spoke softly. “As I’m sure you realize from watching this video, our son was born with a developmental disability. The brain damage he suffered at birth also left him with the speech and mobility issues you saw. However, at no point in his life did he ever feel sorry for himself or wonder why he had these challenges. He accepted his life the way it was, even though others often refused to accept him.”
She struggled to control her voice. “Through testing, it was determined that Ricky had an IQ of 63. Most likely everyone in this room has an IQ of 100 or more. But the only reason I mention this number is to stress how unimportant it was in regard to who our son actually was. His kindness, gentleness, thoughtfulness, and love for others were all far more important than a test score. You are each living proof of that fact. However, for some people, that number was used to unfairly define Ricky as a human being. They could not see past it, and so they were not able to appreciate the humanity of the person they were so quick to judge.” She turned to her husband and nodded.
Charles stepped forward, and with great effort, controlled the anger he still felt as he explained Ricky’s accident. “At various times in his life our son faced intolerance, disrespect and worst of all bullying. In the months before he died, three individuals began to take great delight in tormenting and humiliating him. We informed the authorities, and that seemed to put an end to it. There were no more episodes of harassment, and we naively thought the entire episode was over.
“Then on Wednesday, August 28, as Ricky was walking from his job to go get some lunch, a car pulled up alongside him and the same three individuals got out and began to taunt and ridicule him. One of them hit Ricky in the face, and he fell to the ground. He struggled to get up, but they kept knocking him back down. Another motorist, who saw what was happening, stopped and yelled at them to leave Ricky alone. When their attention was diverted to the person in the car, Ricky got to his feet and tried to run across a parking lot. The motorist witnessed what happened next. One of the individuals began to chase our son and quickly caught up with him. When he got close enough, he pushed Ricky as hard as he could. My son lost his balance and fell to his right. He twisted as he was falling, and the back of his head struck a parking curb. The violent impact crushed his brain stem. That moment essentially ended his life.”
There was total silence in the room as each visitor began to fully comprehend the horror the Eastman family had been through. The senseless tragedy that had forced them into making the most heartbreaking decision a human being can ever make should never have happened. Their willingness to save the lives of others despite their own devastating pain now seemed even more profound and meaningful.
Charles continued, “On many occasions, Ricky was made to feel that he was not important, that he did not matter, but everyone in this room knows that is not true. Our son lost his life, in part, because of who others wrongly judged him to be, but each of you is alive today because of the person he actually was. His attackers refused to accept him as an equal, but despite their indefensible act of cruelty, Ricky’s kindness persevered. The fact that each of you is alive today bears witness to how the good in people overcomes the bad. Our son never held grudges about the way he was treated, and he always sought out the best in people. His ability to forgive was inspiring.”
Charles paused for a moment as he collected his thoughts. “Although his tormentors viewed him as an inferior human being, it was actually Ricky’s incredible humanity that has allowed us to gather together today. In so many ways he was the kindest person I’ve ever known. Our son always thought of others first, and he cared deeply about people. Every relationship he had, was, in his eyes, a potential friendship, so please think of him as a dear friend who gave you everything he could. He would have loved and accepted each of you completely. We hope you will use his gift to do what you can to make the world a more tolerant and understanding place.”
Next Patricia, with her voice trembling, recounted the day that Ricky became aware of organ donation. “Our son’s decision to become a donor did not just randomly happen. One night I was in the kitchen preparing dinner, Ricky was in the living room, and the TV was tuned to the evening news. A story came on about how a person with an intellectual challenge was refused a place on an organ transplant list, and it was believed she was denied because of her disability.
“Ricky immediately called me into the front room and asked if that could really happen. I hesitated to even discuss it because the subject was so upsetting, but he kept pressing me for an answer. So, I finally responded as honestly as I could. I told him that in some parts of the country it was possible that it could happen. I can vividly remember the look on his face when he realized what I was saying. At first, he could not believe it because he said the girl in the story was just like him. He thought for a few moments, and then he asked me if that meant he could not receive an organ to save his life. My heart sank as I struggled to explain the unexplainable.”
For most of the people in the room, this was the first time they had ever heard of someone being denied a transplant because they had a disability. As they listened to Patricia, they felt both shock and disgust that a society they were part of could possibly think that any person should be denied the opportunity to extend their life.
Patricia looked around the room and continued, “We began to talk about how some people did not understand that every person was equal and had the same rights, but then Ricky suddenly stopped me and asked if it worked the other way too. Confused, I asked him what he meant. Ricky looked at me with complete innocence and said these exact words, ‘Well, if they won’t let me get an organ to save my life can I least give my organs when I die to other people who might need them?’ I was so stunned by his question that I didn’t answer immediately. Ricky was very concerned and said, ‘They might not think I’m good enough to deserve an organ, but am I good enough to donate one?’ It is still difficult for me to understand that kind of compassion.”
Tears began to silently roll down Patricia’s cheeks. She looked out at the new friends assembled together and said, “How are you supposed to respond to your child when he discovers that there might be others who do not believe he has the right to live?
“That night Charles and I sat down with Ricky and answered all of his questions the best we could. We looked up organ transplants on the internet and gave him information he could understand. By the end of the evening, Ricky was certain about what he wanted to do. He told us that if something bad happened to him, he understood that no one would save him with a transplant, but when he died, we had to give his organs to as many people as possible.”
Patricia shook her head in admiration as she remembered their conversation, “At that moment I realized my son was actually smarter than me because he truly understood the meaning of life. He knew how important it was to think of others no matter what the cost, and because he was completely unselfish, he was able to see the world more clearly, without the bias and prejudice that can distort our view of life. But the awful reality is that, at least in some cases, it is possible our son would not have been allowed to receive an organ from anyone in this room, but thankfully five of you were blessed to receive his.”
Patricia finished by saying, “Tragically, in any type of organ donation scenario there is always a terrible price extracted for the opportunity to save lives. Our situation was no different than the sacrifices made by countless other donor families. We only had Ricky for 22 years, so just like you, we know from personal experience how fragile life can be. It is now our hope that whatever you choose to do from this day forward, you will follow our son’s example and make kindness a priority. That way you can each make an important difference in the world in your own way.”
Michelle addressed the room last. “I was two years old when Ricky was born, so I cannot remember my life without him. We grew up together, and I always felt lucky because he was a wonderful brother. I had a lot of friends who had siblings, and it seemed like they fought constantly. That never happened to us. Anger, jealousy, and pettiness were not in Ricky’s nature. Although he learned at a different rate and his speech was sometimes difficult to understand, Ricky was the happiest person I’ve ever known. My brother had a magical way of brightening my day no matter what was going on.”
She hesitated as she thought about how to put her thoughts into the right words. “But as you now know, many people did not make the effort to get to know Ricky. Instead, they judged him by his appearance, by the way, he talked or by his mannerisms. They refused to learn what kind of person he truly was. It is hard to believe, but someone in school once asked me if I was embarrassed to have a brother like Ricky. It was a question filled with ignorance. I’m sure none of you are embarrassed to be alive because you’ve learned that you had a compassionate donor like Ricky.
“It is impossible to understand such narrow-mindedness. My brother was my best friend, and it is unbearable how much I miss him. Each one of you is an example of why there needs to be more caring people just like Ricky. I eventually realized that there would always be those who refused to accept my brother as a person, but I never ever thought that it would cost him his life.”
As her voice began to shake, Michelle forced herself to go on. “The last time I saw him was on the morning of the attack. Ricky was very excited about his job because his supervisor had told him that he was going to go from part-time to full-time starting on the first of the month. I offered to pack him a lunch, but he said he wanted to walk over to a fast food restaurant and get a hamburger instead. It was a simple decision, the kind we all make every day, but it provided the opportunity his predators needed……” Her voice trailed off, and she fought back tears.
“Because of the brutal circumstances that have brought us all together, we have each learned how important it is to never take the people in our lives for granted. Someday they will no longer be there, and it will be too late to tell them how much they mean to you. We should never pass up the opportunity to let them know we love them.
“The last year has been agonizingly painful, but by being here today, you have given us the opportunity to see firsthand all of the good that resulted from Ricky’s death. It means so much to know that my brother did not die in vain. Thank you for coming.”
Michelle’s heartfelt remarks concluded the formal part of the celebration. Everyone had been given the opportunity to address the room, and now the gathering took on a more relaxed informal tone. Refreshments were served, and people took the time to really get to know each other. No one was in a hurry to leave, and many remained for several hours. Connections were made easily because no matter what walk of life someone came from, they all shared an unbreakable bond that could not be fully understood by those who had not endured the same intense fear, heartbreaking sorrow, and unbridled joy.
But this gathering had been significantly different from what most of them had anticipated. The recipients and their loved ones now had a deeper understanding and appreciation for what donor families go through when they make the agonizing life and death decision to save other lives. But it wasn’t just the compassion of Charles, Patricia, and Michelle that touched them. In an even more profound way, they were affected by the life and death of Ricky.
Before today most of them had known very little about intellectual challenges, but now they could not help but view disabilities in a different light. The mental image they’d had of an organ donor over the last twelve months had been forever shattered, replaced by a small unimposing individual who spoke and moved differently but who viewed life in an extraordinary way that provided a shining example to others.
We each hold onto life with our entire being – but our next breath is never guaranteed. Death will one day come to all of us, but our basic instinct makes us struggle against the inevitable to the very end. Thankfully the evolving science of organ transplantation has extended life for hundreds of thousands of Americans while at the same time allowing compassionate people to give the greatest gift of all.
But possessing the ability to save lives creates a disturbing ethical question.
Are we going to allow medical advancements to be denied to some while being made available to others? Are we actually willing to let the score of an IQ test be used to determine life or death?