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Life after death
Because a 15-year-old Marble Hill, Mo. boy died, two people are looking forward to a life they might not otherwise have been able to live. Countless others are healing, all due to organ and tissue donations.
Aaron McKinney, a Woodland High School student, died in October 2004 in an accident that also severely injured his mother, Dani Dunn.
"I'm supposed to be here," Dunn said. "I still have something I'm supposed to do."
Honoring Aaron's memory and promoting organ donation is something she feels driven to do.
A couple years before the accident, Dunn said, she and her family were watching a video of "John Q" -- a movie starring Denzel Washington as a frustrated parent who holds a hospital hostage demanding a transplant for his child that insurance wouldn't cover.
"When the movie was over I said to my husband if anything happens to me, it's very important that I be an organ donor," Dunn recalled. "All three of my children said at the same time, 'We want to do that too.'"
Just before she was wheeled into surgery at Saint Francis Medical Center's trauma center, doctors told her that Aaron was on mechanical support and "things did not look good."
Dunn said she told the doctor, "You need to do everything possible for him, but if you can't save him he needs to be an organ donor."
Aaron McKinney was, Dunn said, "a typical teenager. Up until about six months before the accident, he was my biggest challenge. Not only did he know which buttons to push, he enjoyed pushing them."
But Aaron had begun to mature during the last six months of his life, his mom said. He liked helping younger children fix their bicycles; he refereed soccer teams for younger children. Aaron excelled in soccer and was voted Most Valuable Player in his league. He played saxophone in the band at Woodland, and told his friends he had a cool mom.
"He was coming into his own," she said. "One of my favorite things about him was that he was not afraid to be Aaron. He loved to hunt with his dad; he loved four-wheeling. He was an all-around American boy."
While Dunn was in intensive care, Aaron was on mechanical support right next door to her. She saw him three times before he was pronounced dead.
"I just knew he wasn't there," she said.
Staff from Mid-America Transplant Services was at her side from the time she and Aaron arrived at the hospital, and she says that even now she knows she can call them when she's having a bad day and needs to cry. Being what she calls a "donor mom" is a process. Health care professionals who work with trauma patients are special angels, she said.
"The first night lying in ICU, I knew Aaron was next door to me," Dunn said. "I knew he was gone. One thing that got me through the night all night was a nurse would come in and say, 'I'll bet somebody is getting that phone call they have been waiting for for years. It's a kidney for them, a liver for them.'"
Saint Francis and Mid-America took every step to make sure that the family's feelings were considered when it came time to take the organs. Mid-America personnel explained the procedure to the family. Dunn's husband and mother went with Aaron to the operating room. The hallway had been roped off to ensure privacy. Aaron's grandmother gave him a final kiss and a hug.
"Doctors and nurses came out and gave him honor," Dunn said. "There wasn't a dry eye."
One of Aaron's kidneys was given to a 52-year-old woman from St. Louis named Margaret, who no longer has to have daily dialysis treatment. Dunn said she received a letter from Margaret recently who signed it "love to you and your family from Margaret and Aaron."
His other kidney was given to a 66-year-old grandfather named Cecil, who will now live to enjoy his six grandchildren. A 52-year-old diabetic Maryland woman was given his pancreas and no longer needs insulin to survive. Aaron's liver was donated, but the recipient did not survive. As many as 50 people have benefited from donations of his tissue, bone and skin.
"It just honors his life," Dunn said. "I don't feel like part of him lives on. I look at it like if such a tragedy had to happen, at least something good came of it."
Dunn's own recovery is also a process. Physically, she is getting better. Her broken bones have healed. But she still has some issues with depression and anxiety. She is not ready to go back to work. Instead, she has compiled a scrapbook of Aaron's life.
On the positive side, small things that used to upset her no longer do. "I have a different outlook about what's important," she said.
Dunn says she's not ready yet to meet the people who have received Aaron's organs.
"My fear is the recipient more than I would be uncomfortable," she said. "I don't want them to feel like they owe me anything."
Said Breita Church, director of Mid-America Transplant, "To owe your life to the fact that she lost her child would be a heavy burden."
Next week Mid-America Transplant, recognizing National Organ Donor month, is saying thank you to the doctors and nurses at Saint Francis and Southeast and other hospitals who work with transplant donors and recipients by bringing them sugar cookies baked in the shape of a commemorative ribbon iced green to reflect the green ribbons people wear in support of organ donation. Dunn said she will be there to help give away the cookies and to hug each doctor and nurse she sees.
While Aaron lost his life, his mother's decision to donate his organs and tissue helped save other lives.
"I'm happy I made that decision," she said. "But sad that the decision had to be made."
335-6611, extension 160
One donor can save the lives of seven people by donating vital organs
* One donor can save the lives of 50 people through tissue donations
* In the area covered by Mid-America Transplant Services, 1,700 people are awaiting a transplant
* To become an organ donor, contact Mid-America Transplant Service, 332-0700