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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The Inaugural Shawn Miller Memorial Run

September 3, 2014
Shawn Miller on his bike.

Shawn Miller on his bike.

Shawn Miller had a big personality. Most people around his small town loved him and he, of course, loved them right back. His brother, Nathan, says that, “All you had to do was call and Shawn was there.” Nathan continues, “He would go out of his way to help his friends and make sure they were happy.”

It was only natural that when Nathan told Shawn about organ donation, his response was, “Well duh. I have no use for my organs once I’m gone. Why the heck wouldn’t I be donor?”

That discussion became relevant earlier this year when Shawn was fatally injured doing what he loved – riding his ATV.  “I was so proud of him for making this decision,” says Nathan. “Knowing that he lives on and helped five others in need is amazing. Shawn is my role model.”

On Saturday, September 6th, the friends and family of Shawn Miller are hosting inaugural Shawn Miller Memorial Run to honor him and his gifts of life through organ and tissue donation. The event will kick-off at 11:00am at Manny’s Pizza in Savanna, Illinois. All proceeds from the event will be donated to Gift of Hope.

To learn more about the event, visit the Shawn Miller Memorial Run Facebook page at http://on.fb.me/1uvqyH8. Inquiries about the event should be sent to Nathan Schnitzler at nschnitzler30@gmail.com.


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.”


Peace and Purpose at Life’s End

April 25, 2014
Michelle and Brian

Michelle and Brian

Michelle Bernstein says that organ donation was of utmost importance to her brother, Brian, and, now, to her family as well. “For Brian, donating his organs helped to bring him peace and purpose at the end of his life,” she explains. This is Brian’s story as told by Michelle:

Brian had a tragic car accident in summer 2009, just weeks before his 18th birthday. The accident left him with a rare condition called “locked-in syndrome.” He was completely and permanently paralyzed from the neck down. He could not breathe, speak or swallow and depended on a ventilator and feeding tube to sustain him. Although paralyzed, he still suffered from constant pain. Yet, his cognitive abilities were fully intact. After much practice and patience, he learned to communicate by blinking his eyes and, later, mouthing words. Using these communication techniques, Brian conveyed his wishes to become an organ and tissue donor.

Brian was a fighter and persevered for nine months. However, realizing his situation would never change, Brian courageously decided that the time had come to be removed from life support in a way that his organs could be recovered for transplantation. Generously giving life to others was the one goal he could still achieve.

During his last days of life, Brian got two tattoos. He had the St. Michael the Archangel tattooed on his chest because he wished to be an archangel to those that he would be leaving behind. He also had the Donate Life logo tattooed on his right hand so that everyone paying final respects would see his silent message.

The night before Brian’s death, he consoled our mother saying, “Don’t cry, Mom. This is a good thing. I know what it’s like to suffer and lose hope. But tomorrow someone else will be getting good news.” Then in the hospital, when the organ compatibility tests were done and Brian learned who some of his likely recipients might be, he was pleased, but he responded, “I wish I could help them all.” That couldn’t be done, of course, but he saved and improved several lives by donating his organs and corneas.

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In the end, Brian found a higher purpose that he expressed by giving life to strangers and inspiring those around him, while freeing himself from the torment of being trapped inside his own body. Our hearts are broken, and our lives are forever changed, but we will carry his mission forward and encourage those of you reading Brian’s story to do the same.


As One Life Ends, Another Begins

April 21, 2014
Chris

Chris

The message from two policemen at the door was every parent’s worst fear.

“Is Christopher Michaels your son? There’s been an accident,” one officer said.

Paramedics returning from another call were on the scene within moments after Chris was struck by a car Aug. 6, 2013. He was rollerblading home after volunteering at a local YMCA event.

Doctors at the hospital didn’t hold out much hope. Chris had suffered severe head trauma and was on a ventilator. He never regained consciousness. He was just 22. So strong, so handsome and so full of life.

Representatives of Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network asked if the family would consider organ donation for Chris — he was a registered donor. Their approach was gentle, but his mom, Jane, was in shock.

After a few hours, Jane was ready to honor Chris’ commitment. His brother, Dan, asked if the family could choose who would receive one of Chris’ kidneys — make a “directed donation” — if there was a match with the father of Dan’s close friend. He had been on the kidney transplant waiting list for some time.

The Gift of Hope representative took all of the information needed for a directed donation, and, later, the two families were thrilled to learn there was a match. The chances are rare.

The last good-byes were peaceful. Family had time alone with Chris to talk and pray. They walked arm in arm with Chris down the hall to the door of the operating room where Chris would offer the gift of life. Still, it was heartbreaking to let him go.

One lasting impression was that every member of the Gift of Hope team was extraordinarily kind and compassionate to the family. They always treated Chris with the utmost respect and dignity.

“They did, in fact, give us hope that Chris’ death was not a waste of a precious life, but that he will indeed live on in others,” Jane said. “He will always live in our hearts.”

Twenty years was just not enough time with Chris. He was born on March 22, 1991, on the island of Cebu in the Philippines and joined his family through adoption just after his second birthday.

Chris loved coaching a boys’ traveling soccer team after he graduated from high school and worked in a warehouse. He liked helping others and feeling like a big brother; he was the youngest of three children.

Dan and Jane had the wonderful opportunity to visit with the man who received Chris’ kidney, along with his family, and see how well the dad is doing and what a remarkable difference Chris has made in his life.

Dan’s friend is getting married this summer, and everyone looks forward to seeing his dad dance at the wedding. Chris was a good dancer. Perhaps Dan’s father will have some of Chris’ moves on the dance floor.


Help Honor Jared Knispel

April 17, 2014
Jared Knispel

Jared Knispel

Gift of Hope and two charitable groups are banding together to rebuild the home of Dave and Lauri Knispel. In the midst of a home demolition project, the couple’s 16-year-old son, Jared, tragically was killed in an accident in June 2013. Through his family’s selfless decision, Jared’s organs and tissue were donated, and he saved numerous lives.

Two organizations in Plano learned of the Knispels’ loss and stepped up to help. Tommy’s Gift, named in memory of three-week-old Tommy Zimmermann, is a foundation assisting Plano area families in need of home maintenance and repairs with the support of United Methodist Church of Plano members.

In addition, the Plano Building Community organization selects a family each year and provides labor and materials for an extensive home repair or improvement project.

Donations may be made with checks payable to Plano Building Community with “Tommy’s Gift/Jared’s house” in the memo and mailed to Tommy’s Gift, P.O. Box 113, Plano, IL 60545.

The Zimmermann Family -- Founders of Tommy's Gift

The Zimmermann Family — Founders of Tommy’s Gift

Or, you can make a donation online at www.tommysgift.org.

UPCOMING EVENTS to support this effort include:

Trivia Night: April 26 at the American Legion, 510 E. Dearborn St., in Plano. Admission is $10 at the door, or free for children age 11 and younger. The evening also features silent auctions, raffles and giveaways.

Construction: May 23-26 at the Knispels’ home, 618 S. West Street in Plano. Skilled tradesmen are still needed and can join the project at any time during the weekend. Specific questions can be directed to Tom Zimmermann at 630-636-1288.


Through a Donor’s Gift, He Celebrates

April 17, 2014
Mike and his kids

Mike and his kids

In September 2011, Mike Lund and his family set off for vacation on Washington Island in northern Wisconsin. There, they gathered with extended family to celebrate three birthdays: his wife’s 40th, his brother-in-law’s 40th and his niece’s first.

Yet, Lund was feeling sore and exhausted. He then suffered a heart attack.

He was ferried off Washington Island to a small hospital where he was stabilized and then was rushed to a hospital in Green Bay. There, he received a heart stent, a small tube to help blood flow to his heart. “They mentioned they placed a green and gold one, just so I could represent them in Chicago,” jokes Mike, a staunch Chicago Bears fan.

With each beat, a normal heart pumps out about 60 percent of blood in a filled ventricle to the body. It’s called an “ejection fraction rate.” In Green Bay, Lund’s ejection fraction rate was just 25 percent. After returning to Chicago, his rate declined to 15 percent and then to just 5 percent by Halloween 2011. He was told he needed a heart transplant. To increase his chances of surviving long enough for a donated heart to become available, doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to help his failing heart.

Over the next 14 months, Lund waited for the gift of life. The LAVD improved his health and strength, “which is extremely important for a good transplant outcome,” Mike says.

One day in January 2013, Mike’s sister called. Their mother was in the emergency room, so he and his wife headed to the hospital. On their way, Mike received another call, the one he had been waiting for — a donated heart was available.

The Lund Family

The Lund Family

His mother’s condition turned out to be non-life-threatening, and Mike received his heart transplant. Since then, “I have been feeling better and better,” says Lund, now an Advocates for Hope volunteer for Gift of Hope. “I have written to my donor’s family, and I thank my donor every day,” he says. “I do not know who they are, but, without their gift, I would not be here.”

More than 15 months after a life-giving donor helped him “in the most profound way,” Mike is alive to celebrate his wife’s birthday and many more to come. “I can work full time, play with my three children and celebrate their birthdays,” he says. “I am grateful to have celebrated my 23rd wedding anniversary with my wife.

“Thank you to all past, current and future donors. You make the ultimate difference.”


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