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 Inquiries about the event should be sent to Nathan Schnitzler at


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.


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.

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.

As One Life Ends, Another Begins

April 21, 2014


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.

A Giving Nature Endures Through Donation

April 16, 2014
Javier in Chicago

Javier in Chicago

Javier Nuñez was a big man with a big heart — as big as all outdoors. “He cared a lot about his family and friends and helped them any way he could,” his younger sister, Angie Merryman, recalls. “Many times he helped me with my college expenses. But he preferred to go unnoticed for the good he did.”

He also loved the outdoors, especially cycling. “He biked to work in Chicago every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow,” Angie says.

Tragically, Javier was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver at the stunningly young age of 37. “At the time, they attributed it to having a fatty liver, which is very common among Hispanics,” says Angie. “My aunt on my mother’s side passed away from liver disease. I was told Javier had a 50 percent chance of surviving three months. It was devastating for our family.”

However, Angie, her parents and her four brothers and sisters rallied around Javier, working tirelessly to keep him well enough to be considered for a liver transplant. Finally, 10 months later, in December 2010, he was placed on the transplant waiting list. “But we could tell Javier was becoming much sicker,” Angie says. “He ended up in the ICU, hanging on to life.”

On Javier’s 39th birthday, doctors were notified of a matching donor. But just four days later, joy turned to tragedy when Javier died of a massive brain hemorrhage.

“It was tremendously heartbreaking, of course,” says Angie. “But knowing he had registered as an organ donor, my father immediately asked, ‘Can any of his organs be donated?’ This is how we found comfort during this difficult time.”

Ultimately, Javier’s corneas were recovered and transplanted, and his tissue gifts have been used in 46 procedures. Even in death, Javier’s giving nature endured.

Javier and his family celebrating Thanksgiving in 2009

Javier and his family celebrating Thanksgiving in 2009

“I kept my brother’s driver’s license, and when I look at it I think of the quick signature, the few keystrokes it takes to register as a donor,” says Angie. “Those simple actions are tremendously powerful and carry so much meaning, not only to the individual, but to all those who love and care for that person. They mean a miracle. They mean hope.”

Tragically, hope was lost for Angie and Javier’s mother, who was diagnosed with cirrhosis the same month Javier died in 2011. While on the waiting list for a liver transplant, his mother died of end-stage liver disease on March 8 of this year. “The statistics say 18 people die every day waiting for a transplant,” Angie says. “Last month my mother became one of those statistics.”

New Life on Easter Sunday

April 15, 2014
Ryan Landers

Ryan Landers

On Good Friday, April 6, 2007, Ryan Joseph Landers was severely injured in a head-on car accident on a two-lane road near Springfield, Ill. The 19-year-old automotive technology student was on his way to work, riding in his pride and joy — a 2000 Honda Civic SI.

First responders struggled to free Ryan from the wreckage for 45 minutes. One fireman climbed inside the mangled car to administer oxygen and calm Ryan. But he never regained consciousness.

Ryan was declared brain-dead on April 7. He had expressed his interest in being an organ and tissue donor to his family, and they complied with his wishes. They found Gift of Hope supportive and compassionate during an agonizing time.

On Easter Sunday 2007, Ryan offered the gift of life as an organ and tissue donor. He was able to donate four organs, and his tissue gifts have benefitted 61 people in 12 states and the Republic of South Korea. Recipients have ranged from a four-month-old boy to an 87-year-old man.

The 39-year-old man from Poplar Grove, Ill., who received Ryan’s right kidney and pancreas had been losing a 26-year battle with diabetes. In a note of thanks, he wrote, “Not a day goes by that I don’t say a prayer for my donor family and the gifts that they shared. Through the doctor’s skilled hands a miracle was performed. After 26 years, I am free once more.”

To honor Ryan, his parents, Pat and Jay, established the Ryan J. Landers Memorial Scholarship in Automotive Technology at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield. Since establishing the scholarship in spring 2009, six people have received academic awards. Pat and Jay have met most of the recipients, and Ryan’s story is always shared with them. And in their dedicated work as Advocates for Hope volunteers for Gift of Hope, they share Ryan’s story as often as they can to underscore the importance of being a registered donor and how that selfless decision can help others.

Ryan's parents, Jay & Pat, are active Gift of Hope volunteers.

Ryan’s parents, Jay & Pat, are active Gift of Hope volunteers.

Ryan’s friends remembered him as having a constant smile and being able to brighten their days. He excelled in art and enjoyed working with kids. He loved skateboarding, guitars and working on cars.

With Ryan’s sister, Kelly, and his brother, Chris, Pat and Jay have volunteered at many public education and special events to promote organ and tissue donation. The couple also co-chairs the Springfield Life Goes On committee and speaks on behalf of Gift of Hope.

The Landers Family never expected to be on this journey. “We wish we’d never met you,” is what they often say to other donor families when they get together. But amid the long shadow cast by the tremendous loss of a loved one, Ryan’s light shines brightly created by the legacy he left as of organ and tissue donor.

Giving Nature Brings Joy and Hope for New Life

April 7, 2014

IMG_1928Marsha Goodheart recalls how her 16-year-old grandson, Ryan Yurs, could light up a room with his smile.

“He was kind, compassionate and sensitive,” she says. “He smiled on the outside but had an inner battle going on inside.”

Ryan Yurs struggled with depression and mental health issues. “It was hard to watch a once fully alive person to slowly lose his life force and be powerless to help him,” she says.

He ended his inner battle by taking his life in March 2010. “It was by far the worst day of our family’s life,” Marsha says. Her grandson was pronounced dead at the hospital, but his body remained on a respirator as his family struggled to accept their loss.

In providing support to the family, the ICU doctors and nurses explained that Ryan could become an organ and tissue donor. The family understood it was an opportunity “to turn this complete tragedy into a chance to save more lives,” Marsha says.

The Goodheart family with one of Ryan's recipients, Andy.

The Goodheart family with one of Ryan’s recipients, Andy.

“Knowing Ryan’s giving nature, he would have wanted that,” she says. “We said ‘yes’ to allow Ryan to live on by becoming an organ and tissue donor.”

The recipient of Ryan's lungs, Joe.

The recipient of Ryan’s lungs, Joe.

As a result, Ryan gave life to several recipients of his heart, lungs, liver, corneas, bone and other tissues. His family has since received nine letters from people whose lives he saved and improved.

“We have met the lung and liver recipients. They are such gracious people,” Marsha says. “When I look in their eyes, I see Ryan’s smile again. I see joy and happiness and hope for new life. Nothing can take away our loss and pain of losing Ryan. But we know Ryan is a hero, not only to us, but to many others as well. It is amazing how just one donor can save or enhance the lives of more than 25 people. And Ryan is now a part of this.”

Marsha urges others to register as donors. “You may have a chance to make a difference, help save lives and give hope to families. Sign up to be an organ and tissue donor and encourage your family and friends to become one, too.”

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