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 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.
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.
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.”