Band of Brothers – A Soldier Honors the Legacy of His Best Friend

November 11, 2014
Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte honored his best friend by carrying a Donate Life Flag with him on tours of the Middle East and Africa.

Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte honored his best friend by carrying a Donate Life Flag with him on tours of the Middle East, Africa and Thailand.

This article was originally published in the Q1 issue of Gift of Hope’s Connections Newsletter

Cameron Chana and Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte first met in 2006 when they pledged for the Sigma Pi fraternity at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. Chana, of Clarendon Hills, Ill., was entering his sophomore year and eager to continue his college pursuits while serving as a member of Sigma Pi. Tofte, of Roscoe, Ill., also a sophomore but three years older than Chana, had a year of community college under his belt after coming off active duty as a member of the U.S. Army’s famed 1st Cavalry Division. They were accepted into the fraternity, and for the next three years they were college roommates and worked closely together in their various roles within the Sigma Pi fraternity house. They became brothers.

Cameron Chana

Cameron Chana

“Cameron was easily the most memorable person I met during my time at Eastern,” Tofte recalled. “He was one-of-a-kind, and there aren’t enough positive words in any language to describe just how remarkable of a person he was. I have been half-way around the world with my Army travels and have met all kinds of people from all walks of life, and it’s no exaggeration to say Cameron was easily among the best of them. He was warm, kind, funny, loving, smart and helpful.”

The trait that radiated from Chana most — the part everyone fell in love with — was his genuine caring attitude, Tofte added. “It didn’t matter if you had known him for years or just met him 10 minutes ago. He wanted to get to know you better. It was why so many people considered him their best friend and why there was, and there remains, such a strong reaction among his friends and fellow students to his loss.”

It was late May 2009, three weeks after Chana had graduated from EIU. He had decided to pursue an MBA at EIU, so he stayed there after graduation with plans to start graduate school in the fall. He and about 50 others, mostly EIU students, were returning to campus on a rented double-decker bus with an open-air top after a day of boating at Lake Shelbyville, a popular central Illinois recreational area. Chana, who stood about 6-foot-3, and another man were facing backward when the bus headed under the Interstate Highway 57 overpass on Illinois Highway 16 in Mattoon, just west of the EIU campus. Chana and the other man both were killed instantly when their heads struck the overpass.

Quick-thinking students gave both men CPR until first responders arrived. The students didn’t know both men were beyond saving at that point. But their actions proved to be lifesaving nonetheless.

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Erik, a Humvee and the Donate Life flag

That’s because Chana was a registered organ and tissue donor. Chana’s parents, Rob and Lori, didn’t know about their son’s decision to be a donor. That fact surfaced when they heard the devastating news that Cameron was brain-dead. Even in death, Cameron’s caring attitude emerged, Rob said. “Cameron had taken all appropriate steps to be an organ and tissue donor. He knew the decision to donate would be a difficult one for us, and he didn’t want us to have to make that decision if we were ever faced with it. That was Cameron.”

Surgeons recovered Chana’s heart, liver, lungs and two kidneys, and those gifts saved five people’s lives. And his tissue gifts have resulted in more than 50 transplants to date. Cameron’s impact on other people’s lives through his decision to be an organ and tissue donor is his legacy, Tofte said. “It was only a matter of time until he made a mark on the world. We all expected that to happen in life. In his case, he has made his mark in death.”

Tofte has dedicated himself to ensuring that Chana’s mark leaves a very large footprint. Since 2009, he has been a member of the Texas Army National Guard and has been deployed to several locations, including Africa, the Mideast and Thailand. During those deployments, Tofte took several steps to make sure the areas he visited felt his best friend’s presence and learned about the importance of organ and tissue donation.

For example, he carried a Donate Life flag with him, and, taking a “roaming gnome” approach, he had photographs taken of himself holding the Donate Life flag throughout his travels. He also created Donate Life and C.L.C. (Chana’s initials) nameplates for his uniform and wore them over his regulation insignia when possible and appropriate and took more photographs of him wearing the nameplates. And he had pro-donation T-shirts made and wore one in many other photographs. He compiled many of these photographs into a photo book.

Erik with the Donate Life flag in Djibouti.

Erik with the Donate Life flag in Djibouti.

Knowing he would return to the states in November 2012, Tofte arranged to visit the Chana family to present them with three surprise gifts: the Donate Life flag he carried with him, the photo book and a T-shirt he wore at his various landing points. He also brought a certificate of authenticity from his base commander in Djibouti verifying that the Donate Life flag flew over Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on August 6, 2012, “as a symbol and constant reminder of the importance of the Donate Life program and the impact donors have on our great nation.”

In December 2012, Tofte visited the Chanas at their Clarendon Hills home to present them with his gifts. “We had no idea he was doing it,” said Lori Chana. “It was an amazing tribute. We were really touched by it.”

Presenting those gifts was the least he could do to honor the legacy of a dear friend who made the lives of so many people better — in life and in death, Tofte said. “Cameron was the kind of person the world so desperately needs more of. It’s also what makes his participation in organ and tissue donation so fitting. It’s as beautiful as it is tragic.”

See more photos of Erik, Cameron and the Donate Life flag at GiftofHope.org.

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Through Knowledge Comes the Gift of Hope

April 28, 2014
Deb (left) is an active Advocates for Hope volunteer.

Deb (left) is an active Advocates for Hope volunteer.

“My son, Scott, was funny and crazy,” says Deb Juris. “He was a body-builder and a health nut. He read poetry. He stood guard over me at a Jimmy Buffet concert so I wouldn’t get stepped on. He was kind, warm-hearted, caring and a ‘help anybody’ kind of guy.”

But on February 14, 2004, came the phone call that every parent dreads. Scott had been in a horrible accident. “When we were told the extent of his injuries, we were in denial,” Deb says. The prognosis was worse than poor.

After 9/11, Scott decided to become a firefighter because he wanted to help people. “We spoke a lot about life and death, and he said he did not want to live on life support if anything ever happened,” she recalls. He also told her he wanted to be an organ donor. “Scott said that being an organ donor was sharing your love with others in need and this, of course, is what he was all about.”

The decision to let Scott go was the most difficult Deb ever had to make. “But, ultimately, it was the only decision because it was what he wanted. We let Scott go on February 18, 2004, and by his love for others he became an organ donor.”

Through their association with Gift of Hope, Deb and her family have met many wonderful recipients and learned their stories. “We are truly happy to hear how their lives were changed,” she says. “We pray that Scott’s recipients are doing well and living life to the fullest, just like Scott did.”

As an Advocates for Hope volunteer for Gift of Hope, Deb now shares Scott’s story with many people. “When someone says that one person cannot make a difference, we let them know that, yes, one person can,” she says. She urges her listeners to discuss with their families the benefits organ and tissue donation. “Through discussion there is education, through education there is knowledge and with knowledge comes the Gift of Hope for your fellow man.”


Because Democracy Lives, So Does Charles

April 14, 2014

Charles Kittles with Gift of Hope CEO Kevin Cmunt receiving a Lifesaving Partners award.

Charles Kittles with Gift of Hope CEO Kevin Cmunt receiving a Lifesaving Partners award.

Gift of Hope Advocates for Hope volunteer Charles Kittles might consider donating his body — minus its viable organs and tissue, of course — to medical science someday. That’s because this 73-year-old retiree, who was released from Loyola University Medical Center with his life-renewing kidney transplant on New Year’s Day 2006, is nothing short of a scientific miracle.

On top of the diabetes and high blood pressure Charles believes caused his kidneys to fail, from 2000 through 2005 he underwent neck surgery, received treatment for prostate cancer, had a cancerous kidney removed, had a three-month nursing home stay and suffered an infection that necessitated the removal of his colon. Yet Charles, a member of Gift of Hope’s African-American Task Force, remains remarkably upbeat and enthusiastic while spreading the good news of organ and tissue donation.

“My doctor used to tell me, ‘You don’t understand that you’re sick,’” Charles recalls. “Well, I never considered myself as sick through any of this. I was just in the shape I was in. You know, we all deal with things in different ways.”

His four children were tested as potential kidney donors. A long-distance blood sample revealed that his daughter, Peggy Jacobs, who­ lives in California, was an ideal match. “There was no discussion,” Charles says, laughing. “This all took place during the time my colon was being removed, and I was in a coma in the hospital. I knew nothing about any of this.”

Charles was concerned about his daughter. “But she told me, ‘You remember when we used to talk around the dinner table, and you always stressed that we live in a democracy and the majority rules? Well, we outvoted you! You have to accept this!’ The best part was that we were in the same room together at Loyola.”

Charles became involved with Gift of Hope after speaking at Loyola’s annual candlelight ceremony in 2006. “Prior to my transplant, I had no idea this world existed,” he says. “Volunteering has given me the opportunity to meet so many truly caring and dedicated people.” While he says he rarely tells his own story anymore — “Truth be told, it gets boring after a while.” — he shares an important message of prevention.

“When you’re told something is wrong with you and your doctor gives you a plan, follow the plan, period,” says Charles. “Don’t groan and moan about it. If you’re told, ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that,’ then don’t do that.”


Donor Chain Creates Links to Life

April 2, 2014

 

Kasci saved Camille's life by anonymously donating her kidney.

Kasci saved Camille’s life by altruistically donating her kidney.

“To watch Camille run around like a perfectly healthy five-year-old was an experience I’ll never forget,” says Kasci Bedessem. “Knowing she can do that because of me is an incredible feeling.”

Kasci decided to participate in a donor chain in April 2011, but she didn’t realize the sense of urgency for a special little girl who had lost most of her kidney function in 2009.

“I had never met Camille,” Kasci says. “I knew nothing about her, not even her name, when I chose to donate. All I knew was that I had two healthy kidneys and could live with just one. I could give the other one to someone who needed it. I could save a life.”

Camille was born prematurely, about 17 weeks early, in October 2007. She spent five months in the pediatric ICU before being allowed to go home. Her kidney function was at 25 percent, and she needed to receive oxygen from that point on.

By her second birthday, Camille’s body had outgrown her kidney’s ability to adequately perform. Her kidney function had fallen to 15 percent, and her doctors put her on the kidney transplant waiting list.

Camille’s father tried to qualify as a donor, but he was rejected. Her mother also underwent the rigorous testing process and was deemed a suitable donor. But she was incompatible with Camille.

Although Camille’s mother was not a match for her daughter, she was potentially compatible with another person waiting for a lifesaving kidney transplant. That meant she could be part of a kidney donor chain where her kidney would be given to someone in need and, in return, Camille would get a kidney that matched her needs

Camille and her mom were listed on the National Kidney Registry, which looks at information nationwide to match donors and recipients, in July 2010. In April 2011, a matching donor for Camille was found, meeting a host of requirements, and a chain of nine donors and nine recipients was painstakingly organized. But Camille caught a cold, and the surgeries were postponed.

A week later, eight of the nine surgeries were scheduled. The lone exception was Camille’s. Her surgery eventually was scheduled in June 2011. The donor for the three-year-old? Kasci Bedessem, an altruistic living donor.

Kasci after her kidney donation.

Kasci after her kidney donation.

Kasci was thrilled to meet Camille and her family in summer 2013 and see her full of life and ready to start kindergarten in the fall as a normal, happy, healthy girl. “It’s very likely that Camille never would have gotten her kidney if I hadn’t decided to be a living donor,” Kasci says. “I saved her life, and I indirectly saved the lives of the eight other transplant recipients in the donor chain. I am proud and privileged to be someone’s hero.”

Other people can be heroes, too, as registered organ and tissue donors.


A Road Trip to Life and Love Beyond Any Other

April 1, 2014
The Stalinski Family

The Stalinski Family

Cathy Stalinski is the mother of an infant organ transplant recipient and a fervent advocate for Gift of Hope and organ and tissue donation. When her baby daughter Kateri was barely three months old, Cathy and her family started on that long journey familiar to so many families waiting for organ transplants.

This “road trip,” as Cathy calls it, started with tests and Kateri’s first surgery. “It gave us some time, but we soon realized her liver was still failing,” Cathy said. She and her husband did their research and learned that the liver can regenerate. “So a person can give a part of their liver, and it will regrow in both people.” Cathy was a blood match and ready to undergo the needed evaluation — “ready to do anything to save my baby,” she said.

Princess Kateri

Princess Kateri

But hopes were shattered when she learned Kateri was not a candidate for a living donor. “The waiting list now was the only chance of life for our daughter,” Cathy said. “My heart was filled with sorrow as I read that 18 people die every day waiting for the gift of life,” Cathy remembered. “Fearing that someone would be our baby chilled us to the bone.”

Cathy and her family knew that the only way to save Kateri’s life was through the selfless gift of an organ donor. The wait seemed endless, but one day they had an organ offer. “My feelings were everywhere,” Cathy explained. “Overjoyed for my baby, heartbroken for the other family’s loss, humbled knowing others were still waiting, anxious for the coming surgery, at peace that Kateri was in God’s hands.”

Cathy said that they were blessed that someone made the choice to give Kateri new life. “It changed the course of our journey — with life given instead of just tragedy for two families,” she said. “The compassion of an organ donor and the family is beyond any other love in human capacity.”

Since the transplant surgery, Kateri has been thriving. She is home with her family, dancing and playing with her brothers. Cathy said that now the family can plan for a different kind of road trip, a trip where there are no hospital waiting rooms and the stakes aren’t so high. “It’s a road trip where we have the open road in front of us and three healthy children singing silly songs. And no one is thinking about anything other than fun.”

Kateri writing her donor family.

Kateri writing her donor family.


30 Stories in 30 Days: In the Midst of Tragedy, a Bright Moment

April 19, 2013
Mary Iden and her daughter Jeanette.

Mary Iden and her daughter Jeanette.

Mary Iden will tell you she is the mother of two heroes. “The first is my son, Steve, who served seven years in the U.S. Army and two tours in Iraq and luckily came home safe. The second is my daughter, Jeanette, who died from a drug-induced heart attack and became an organ donor.”

Jeanette was gorgeous, full of life, kind, caring, with a wonderful smile and was friendly to everyone, Mary said. “She had an infectious giggle, and her nose would crinkle with this giggle. She loved fashion, high heels, make-up and Chanel Chance perfume.”

When tragedy struck, the ER physicians were able to get Jeanette’s heart beating again, but her brain had gone too long without oxygen, and she was declared brain-dead. She was put on a mechanical ventilator and sent to the intensive care unit. There, she was closely monitored by the ICU and Gift of Hope staff. “They were so compassionate and caring,” she said. “Our family and I were treated with respect and sympathy.”

Mary says that she is the mother of two heroes. The first is Steve, who served seven years in the U.S. Army. The second is Jeanette, who gave life through organ and tissue donation.

Then, in the midst of tragedy and grief, a bright moment arose, Mary said. The doctor told the family that because Jeanette was a registered organ and tissue donor, she would be donating many of her organs. “Wow! The darkness was lifted,” Mary recalled. “She will save lives and live on. I am now a proud donor mother, and Steve is a proud donor brother.”

A 49-year-old man received Jeanette’s left kidney and pancreas; a 47-year old man received her right kidney and liver. “I have a feeling that both recipients may be tempted to go out shopping for a Gucci handbag and some stiletto heels,” Mary said with a smile.

Mary also is an Advocates for Hope volunteer with Gift of Hope. Jeanette’s cousin, Anne, is an Advocate, too, in honor and memory of her “baby cousin. They are both working to encourage people to register as organ and tissue donors. “Donation benefits donors and their family members,” Mary said. “You can save lives and give your family a little bright spot during a tragic time.”

 


30 Stories in 30 Days: Kevin’s Life Song

April 11, 2013
Kevin Smith's love of music helped sustain him through two kidney transplants.

Kevin Smith’s love of music helped sustain him through two kidney transplants.

In May 1989, Kevin Smith was 29, married with three daughters and a musician in Los Angeles when he went entered the emergency room at Harbor General UCLA Medical Center. His blood pressure was 322/218, and he had been suffering from severe headaches, blurred vision and nausea.

He was diagnosed with pheochromocytoma, a tumor that causes the adrenal glands to produce high levels of hormones and raises a person’s blood pressure and heart rate. Kevin was told that his long-term hypertension had caused his kidneys to shrink. “What I wasn’t told, and later found out, was that this often leads to kidney failure,” he said.

Kevin moved to Illinois to be near his family and its support system. Soon after the move, he had another major episode and was diagnosed with kidney failure. He was given emergency dialysis for five days to get stabilized. Then he started routine dialysis and went on the kidney transplant list.

Almost two years later, a donor kidney became available, and he had a kidney transplant. But major complications ensued. That led to seven more operations and, eventually, organ rejection. “I went back on dialysis, and it took several months until I was healthy enough to be placed back on the transplant waiting list,” he said.

Thanks to a selfless donor, Kevin is able to pursue his passion of music.

Thanks to a selfless donor, Kevin is able to pursue his passion of music.

His waiting time was anything but unproductive. During his time on dialysis, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Then, in 1994, he received another call and went to Memorial Medical Center in Springfield for a successful kidney transplant.

It has been more than 18 years since his transplant, and everything today is good. “I’m working in education with at-risk children, I’m still playing music and, most wonderful of all, I’m spending time with my three daughters and five grandchildren,” Kevin said.

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