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.


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.”


Gift of Life Unites Rivals

April 24, 2014
The Ehrenberg family

The Ehrenberg family

Terri Guzman is an Advocate for Hope volunteer with Gift of Hope because of the loss of her good friend, Jan Ehrenberg, 15 years ago. “Jan was a teacher, mother, daughter, sister and friend to so many,” Terri explains. And she was an ardent Chicago Cubs fan. In fact, she met her husband at Wrigley Field. But most important, Jan was an organ and tissue donor.

On April 11, 1999, Jan suffered a fatal head injury while playing a game of co-ed basketball. “She fought valiantly for four days, but on April 14th the doctors knew she was not going to recover,” Terri says. That’s when Vince, Jan’s husband, said “yes” to the question of organ and tissue donation. “Please know that telling your family that you want to be an organ donor is showing your generosity to them,” Terri says. “You can give comfort to your family that even in your passing you live on.”

After Jan’s death, her friends and family established the Jan Ehrenberg Scholarship Foundation (JESF) to continue Jan’s legacy as a teacher. Raising funds brought Terri to an event where Chicago White Sox players were signing autographs. “I am a true-blue Cubs fan, just as Jan was, so this was a stretch for me,” Terri says. But she had a baseball to be signed for the benefit, so she stood in line holding some brochures for JESF.

Jan and her kids

Jan and her kids

That’s when she met Mike Papineau, who asked about the brochures. Terri told Mike about Jan, and Mike told Terri about his kidney transplant. They shared the information they knew about dates and donor/recipient details. “We both knew right there what had happened,” Terri says. “I had randomly met my friend’s kidney recipient.”

Mike’s family and Jan’s family met a few weeks later — a group of die-hard Cubs and White Sox fans together at a barbeque. “They joked about the irony of the Cubs/Sox connection,” Terri recalls. Later they made a friendly wager: If the Cubs won the cross-town series, Mike would wear a Cubs hat at the JESF Golf Outing, and, if the Sox won, Terri would wear a Sox hat. The Cubs won.

In 2005, after five years of Cubs outings, JESF decided to do a Sox game instead. “Mike brought lots of friends,” Terri says. And strangely, later that year, the Sox won the World Series. “I think Jan had something to do with that,’ Terri says.


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.


How You Can Help Sarah and Others Like Her

June 7, 2013
Sarah Murnaghan has just weeks, or even days, to live unless she receives a lung transplant. Photo courtesy of ABC.com & Murnahan family

Sarah Murnaghan has just weeks, or even days, to live unless she receives a lung transplant.
Photo courtesy of ABC.com & Murnahan family

Over the past week or two, the nation has become enthralled by the story of Sarah Murnaghan, a 10-year-old with end-stage cystic fibrosis. Doctors say that Sarah has only weeks, or possibly days, to live unless she receives a lifesaving lung transplant. The images of Sarah are remarkably gripping as she lies with her friends and parents while on an oxygen machine. Our hearts truly go out to Sarah and her family.

But, the story hasn’t necessarily been centered on Sarah and her wait; rather, news media have focused on the system for organ allocation that is established by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). OPTN guidelines for transplantation are extremely intricate and complex, but one area that has drawn particular attention has to do with the age of potential recipients. To make a long explanation short, OPTN guidelines allow Sarah to receive lungs from a child but restrict her ability to receive a transplant from an adult. This drastically decreases the potential for Sarah to receive a lifesaving transplant.

The media coverage and national discussion surrounding the OPTN rules have created a storm of controversy which has prompted a U.S. District Court Judge to order an exception to the current organ allocation rules to allow Sarah to receive adult lungs if an appropriate match becomes available.

The Murnahan family as they wait for a second chance at life for Sarah.

The Murnahan family as they wait for a second chance at life for Sarah.

Unfortunately, a relatively small portion of this discussion has focused on the overwhelming need for Americans to register as lifesaving organ and tissue donors. The fact of the matter is that the supply of transplantable organs is vastly insufficient because not enough people say “Yes” to donation. Right now, there are thousands of families across the United States who are desperately waiting – just like Sarah and her family – for a lifesaving transplant. And, unfortunately, many of these families will needlessly lose their loved ones because they did not receive a donated organ in time. This is a problem that we can – and should –  fix.

So, if you’re outraged that someone like Sarah may not receive a lifesaving transplant, I’d encourage you to look at your license and reflect on whether or not you’re a registered donor. We can’t help kids – or adults – like Sarah unless all of us take the time and effort to make the selfless decision to help others through organ and tissue donation.

Until then, we will continue to read stories about those waiting and see images of kids and adults barely hanging onto life while hoping for a selfless donor.

Read more about Sarah and her wait for a lifesaving transplant at http://bit.ly/11scK3M. Register to be an organ and tissue donor at http://www.GiftofHope.org or http://www.DonateLife.net.


30 Stories in 30 Days: The Blessings of Donation

April 29, 2013
Caleb

Caleb was able to give sight to others through is decision to be a donor.

Sheila and Terry Walters’ son, Caleb, was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly before his 21st birthday in 2008. The family was devastated, but they remembered that Caleb wanted to be an organ and tissue donor. Unfortunately, the coroner ordered an autopsy, so the time needed to conduct it would prevent organ donation from happening.

Sheila and Cyndy

Sheila and recipient Cyndy

“We knew Caleb wanted to be an organ donor, so we wanted to honor that wish,” Sheila said. “We wanted something good to come out of our loss.” The Walters left the hospital that day shattered and broken, first, by the loss of Caleb and, second, because they could not honor his wish to be an organ donor.

“It’s difficult to tell you how joyful it felt to receive a phone call from the Illinois Eye-Bank just hours later at home,” Sheila recalled. “Surrounded by friends and family on our deck on a beautiful and tragic day, our flag flying outside at half mast, tears of joy began filling our eyes at the hope that Caleb could be a cornea donor. We could do one last thing for our son and positively enhance the life of another. His life and legacy of helping others would continue; he would make a difference.”

The Illinois Eye-Bank has been a blessing to the family, Sheila said. “It helped us focus during our grief. It gave us a positive outlook on life and death. It helped us see that this is not just about us and our loss but about others and love.” Sheila and Terry are now volunteers for the Illinois Eye-Bank. They have shared their story, signed up new donors and “adopted” recipients who don’t know their donor families.

Sheila and Terry

The Walter Family finds comfort in Caleb’s gift of sight.

Sheila and her family feel God is helping to heal their broken hearts through Caleb’s cornea donation. “Being in touch with Caleb’s recipients has brought comfort,” Sheila said. “I feel so relieved to know that Caleb’s corneas are making a difference in their lives.” And through their work with the Eye-Bank, Sheila said they have witnessed “first hand the reason and purpose for organ and tissue donation on a human level.”


30 Stories in 30 Days: A Lifesaving Decision

April 28, 2013
Otto and Patti Abel

Otto and Patty Abel

Otto Abel was only 50 years old when a sudden stroke took his life in November 2007. His wife, Patty, and his two children, Natalie and Nathan, were shocked and devastated.

Otto was an avid hunter and fisherman, an active board member of the Harvard Sportsman’s Club and an ardent nature lover. “He was young, and his death was so unexpected, “ Patty said.

As an employee of OSF Home Care, Patty is no stranger to end-of-life issues, but she had never discussed the subject with her husband. When the hospital staff asked if Otto was a registered donor, Patty said she didn’t know. “And deciding for him wasn’t possible when I was trying to come to terms with the fact that he was gone,” she explained.

Otto enjoying a day on the lake.

Otto enjoying a day on the lake.

But Otto saved Patty that heartache because he had registered as an organ and tissue donor. “The hospital staff looked him up in the donor registry and confirmed his intentions,” she said. “This relieved me of the burden of making that decision for him.”

Otto’s decision had wonderful results. Steve Heller is alive today because Otto registered to be a donor. At the time of Otto’s death, Steve had been ill for 11 years and on dialysis for more than a year. After undergoing transplant surgery and receiving Otto’s kidney, Steve no longer needs dialysis and is living a happy, normal life.

“Our family will always carry the pain of losing Otto,” Patty said. “But his gift to Steve has brought us comfort because we know that in his death Otto saved Steve’s life.”


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