Two teen cousins. Six transplants. Unanswered and answered prayers.
On Wednesday, August 12, 2015, my 17-year-old cousin, Drew, was laid to rest. He left behind his vital organs that saved four lives and brought sight to one. The next day, my 17-year-old nephew, Tyler, received a life-saving bone marrow transplant courtesy of his younger sister. The circle of life was spinning out of control, and the emotional roller coaster was an unending ride.
Drew had everything going for him. Good looks, winning personality, athletic abilities in football and baseball. It all ended suddenly -- a freak car accident where he was thrown from the backseat of a Jeep that swerved at low speed to avoid a deer. With no seatbelt to restrain him, his head struck a concrete culvert, leaving him with irreparable brain damage.
Being an organ donor was his own choice, not another decision to pile onto the list his parents had to make during this trying time. “That’s the kind of person he was, always thinking of others,” was echoed in the days after the accident by close friends and family. All of the thoughts and prayers on his behalf could not bring him back, and he passed away quietly within a week of the accident. There would be no miracle for Drew. Instead, he would become a miracle.
Even as the prayers for Drew seemed unanswered, no doubt a multitude of prayers were being sent up by the friends and families of the five organ donor recipients. Prayers for the organ needed to become available before their loved one’s life clock expired, or the quality of life deteriorated even more. Prayers through the uncertainty of not knowing if, or when, an organ might become available. Prayers that the phone would ring, or the pager would go off, or the text message would arrive indicating the immediate need to prepare for transplant. Imagine the joy and elation felt by these strangers when the call came. The relief that their wait was over. The belief that God had finally heard them.
And so Drew lives on, his spirit always with those who loved him, his body bringing life to other people he will never know. His heart went to a man in Virginia who had been given a week to live. One of his kidneys went to Kentucky. One kidney and his liver stayed close by in South Carolina. In each case, the recipient was alerted and taken immediately to the transplant facility for preparation. Once the recipient was ready, the organ was harvested, prepped for transport and rushed to the airport where a jet waited to carry it to the final destination. Precise coordination on both ends was required for success. According to Drew’s father, Trey, “All of the recipient transplant procedures being reported are successful and everyone is stable.”
At Drew’s graveside, the football team gathered for a final play call. At the memorial, my hometown gathered, “Camden Strong,” releasing hundreds of black and white balloons into the skies over the high school, joining the final prayers and wishes as they ascended toward heaven.
Tyler also is a good looking young man with an easy-going personality. He played baseball on his high school team, and would jump at any opportunity to go hunting or fishing. Coon hunting in the South Carolina Low Country, gator hunting in the Louisiana bayous, salmon fishing in Alaskan rivers, or bass fishing in a small country pond with his great grandfather -- he loves it all.
He was first diagnosed with leukemia around the age of 18 months. Thankfully, he does not remember much from those years. Not even telling his mother once, upon arrival at the clinic for a final treatment, that, “It’s OK. You go in and I’ll wait here (in the car).”
As a family, we celebrated when his cancer went into remission. The first relapse came about five years later, when he was old enough to have an understanding of what was happening. After another lengthy round of treatments, the cancer went back into remission. And again, right around the five-year mark, the cancer made a final move.
A bone marrow transplant became the only option. Fortunately, Tyler’s younger brother and sister were both solid candidates, and additional tests were run to see which one would be the best match. Seven-year-old Chloe was the winner, much to the relief of 10-year-old Austin.
After weeks of testing and preparation, the transplant was scheduled for Thursday, August 13. The harvesting was scheduled to begin around 7 a.m., with a goal of starting the transplant around noon. The donor cells had to be processed, removing all plasma. Though she was a perfect match for the bone marrow, Chloe actually has a different blood type than Tyler.
I arrived at the hospital, the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, just before 11 a.m., and was ushered into Tyler’s room. It was standing room only -- parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, doctors, and nurses.
The transplant was already underway. The contents of a small bag of 300 million red stem cells at the front of his IV pole gradually decreased. I missed the special song sung by the doctors and nurses at the beginning of the transplant. It was Day 0, his new birthday. For 53 minutes, the IV drained into Tyler, Austin standing by keeping time on his tablet. And then it was over. Transplant complete.
Tyler was pale and weak when I arrived, but by the end of the transplant, he had gained a little bit of color. His eyes still sparkled and he smiled frequently, though said very little. “Tyler hates being the center of attention,” his mother, Shanna, said.
When the doctors came in to do a final check, the entire medical team stood around the foot of the hospital bed in a semi-circle. Tyler secretly removed a can of Silly String from its’ hiding place by his side and blasted the lead doctor, covering her head and upper body with the slimy goo. She screamed in surprise while everyone burst into laughter. Tyler’s sense of humor was intact, evidenced by his sly smile.
Chloe sat in her father’s lap most of the time, still groggy from her procedure earlier that morning. Two physicians had worked simultaneously on each hip, fanning the needles out like a spider web through small incisions to extract marrow from multiple locations on her hip bones. “She’s going to be really sore tomorrow,” Shanna told me, after explaining how the harvesting was done. “No kidding,” I replied, a detailed visual image of the harvest running through my mind. The doctors also drew little “tattoos” on Chloe’s back, one was a star with “super star” written inside, the other said “I love my brother,” accompanied by a heart.
Normally, I would be claustrophobic in a small room like that, full of people. But the air was alive with love, life, and hope. It was a celebration, and I feared some nurse warden for the hall would come in and tell us to bring it down a notch as we were disturbing other patients. It was euphoric. I imagined the similar scenarios played out around the country, as Drew’s organs were transplanted into their recipients -- the joy and relief felt by their gathered loved ones.
So many prayers along Tyler’s journey have been answered. The next major milestone will be the 100-day mark. Tyler’s goal is to be out of the hospital in 30, but first, his body must deal with the after effects of the intensive radiation and chemotherapy he received prior to transplant -- treatments with a host of nasty, delayed side effects. There are some extremely rough days ahead for him, so we continue to pray and hope for Day 100, Day 1,000, Day 10,000 and more.
Chloe and Drew have moved to the top of my list of heroes, past and present. When Austin found out Chloe would be the best donor, he said to Shanna, “Mom, God really does answer prayers.” He has no idea.
UPDATE 2018: Drew was honored as part of the Donate Life float in the 2019 Rose Bowl Parade. Tyler is in his sophomore year at Charleston Southern University.