The Ultimate Gift: Family Raises Donor Awareness

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

On Rachel Escue’s 16th birthday, she went with friends to take her driver’s license test. She also signed up to become an organ donor.

When she came home, she shared the news with her mother, Jencie Escue.

“Look, I’m an organ donor,” her mother recalled Rachel saying. “I’m not going to need them when I die.”

“We had never discussed it before,” Escue said. “That was her decision completely.”

Two years later, the Escues were preparing for a family trip to Hawaii, and 18-year-old Rachel decided to swing by the bank to cash her paycheck before the trip. Her 15-year-old younger sister Jamie also hopped in the car for the short ride to the bank.

As Rachel was pulling out from the bank to merge into Germantown Parkway, the car was broadsided by another car – leaving Rachel trapped inside and both sisters critically injured.

Firemen and EMT crews worked for nearly 40 minutes to free Rachel from the tangled mess. Both sisters were rushed to The Regional Medical Center at Memphis and into surgery.

Initially, Jencie and her husband, Mark, were told both sisters had sustained severe brain damage and weren’t going to make it. But several hours later, they learned that Jamie would need ocular surgery but had not sustained brain damage, and would survive.

The prognosis was not good for Rachel: her brain was slowly dying because of pressure.

After they learned Rachel would not survive the accident, the Escues were approached by a representative from the Mid-South Transplant Foundation to discuss Rachel’s wish to donate her organs.

“We remembered what she had done when she got her driver’s license, but just hadn’t thought about it yet,” Jencie Escue said. “But we both knew she would have wanted that done.”

The time between when a patient begins to die and when that same patient is declared brain-dead can be critical. Organ donation abides by a paradox: a person has to be declared dead before any organs can be removed, but the organs must be alive to be transferred to a living recipient.

After the Escues made the decision to honor Rachel’s wishes, it was still several days before she died. The Escues believe Rachel held on several days until Jamie’s operation had been successfully completed before she was ready to let go. Jencie Escue said she went to tell Rachel that Jamie was going to be OK, and it was shortly after that Rachel died.

“We heard the helicopters coming and we knew she was going to be placed out in the world with other people and that bits of her would live on,” Escue said.

Doctors were able to procure Rachel’s heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas and tissue for transplant recipients. The Escues know that Rachel’s heart went to a mother of five in Knoxville, but they haven’t been ready to reach out to the recipients yet.

“She was so giving,” Escue said. “I love that the last thing she could do would be to give to others. It helps the families and friends of the children who pass away to know that even if you don’t meet the recipients, you know that pieces of your loved ones are helping others and living on.”

Vera Johnson also hasn’t heard from the Florida family that donated their loved one’s heart. But her new heart has given her a new chance at life.

Johnson, who has rheumatoid arthritis, isn’t exactly sure what led to her congestive heart failure. But she had gotten to the point where she was left gasping for breath after walking up stairs and needed to hang on to furniture to navigate her own home.

As the frequency of Johnson’s trips to the emergency room increased, doctors determined her heart was slowly failing.

“They told me the only thing that would keep me alive would be to get another heart,” she said. “They told me my heart had stopped functioning and had stopped working over time.”

Johnson waited on the United Network for Organ Sharing transplant waiting list for about three months. As Johnson and her youngest son enjoyed breakfast and reading the morning paper, his cell phone went off. He didn’t recognize the number, and decided not to answer. A few minutes later, the house phone rang. It was the United Network for Organ Sharing letting the Johnsons know that a heart was ready.

“He didn’t even ask me,” Johnson said. “He just said yes.”

It’s been about two years since Johnson’s transplant and she’s finally getting to do many of the things she hasn’t been able to do for years. On a recent morning, she enjoyed gardening with her grandson and digging in the soft ground to plant a summer garden.

“It really humbles you that someone had enough love for life that they would donate their (loved one’s) child’s organs,” she said. “I have another person’s heart in my body. It really humbles you and you are just filled with gratitude.”

The Escues also haven’t forgotten the gift their daughter made and have worked to raise awareness about organ donation. Cheerleaders from Bolton High School, where Rachel was a student and cheerleader, also have continued to honor her memory.

To raise local awareness, the Arlington High School cheerleading team will perform at The Mid-South Transplant Foundation’s Annual Linking Hands for Life Event on April 21 to celebrate National Donate Life Month.

The celebration will be held at the Overton Park Levitt Shell, and will include a concert featuring David Parks, a native Memphian who was on the MTV show “Making His Band.”