April is Donate Life Month, and we are shining a light on powerful stories from our health system and community. If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of organ donation or if you want to sign up to become a donor, visit msora.org.
Gary’s sense of humor and passion for life were infectious. He would try out hairstyles that made his classmates laugh, he loved to skateboard, and more than anything, he cared deeply for his family.
Julia, his mom, is a circulating nurse in the main operating room at Memorial. One of the things she remembers most about Gary is that even at 13 years old, he didn’t hesitate to show her affection. She shares, “At just the most random moments, and it didn’t matter where we were, I’d hear ‘Hey, mom. Love you.’.”
A split-second decision changed everything
Sunday, April 2, 2000, was a normal day for the family. Gary and his sister planned to go to the beach in Pass Christian after coming home from church. Julia shares, “Everyone knew my kids. Like 13-year-olds tend to be, he thought he was immortal and invincible.”
Gary thought he could cross Highway 90, a busy beachfront highway, in time. He darted across the road, but that decision ended in tragedy when he was struck by a car. Gary’s sister ran back home, screaming as she saw her mom.
“We were very fortunate because an ambulance was parked at a gas station on Highway 90 in between calls,” Julia shares. The first responders witnessed the accident, they logged in the call at 12:55 p.m., and Gary was already in transit at 12:58. All of Gary’s injuries seemed survivable at the time, but the family didn’t know he was experiencing massive hemorrhaging in the brain stem.
Gary was transported to Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, where Julia says they experienced “the most amazing staff”. Once the team assessed the extent of his injuries, Gary was transferred to Tulane to see a pediatric neurologist.
Julia shares, “The day of the accident, Gary’s dad was moving from Tennessee to Ohio. I tried to call him and notify him of Gary’s accident. From what I understand, they had every state trooper between Campbell County, Tennessee, and Ohio trying to catch him to let him know about the severity of Gary’s injuries.” On Monday, one day after the accident, his family was informed that Gary had massive brain damage.
The gift of life for others
The family had to make an incredibly difficult decision. “I told the nurses that if it did turn out that Gary was brain dead, like I suspected, that we wanted to do [organ] donation. Something good had to come from it,” Julia recalls. By 9 p.m. on Monday night, it was confirmed that Gary had passed away.
“We had six organ recipients. They matched everything – heart, bilateral lung, two kidney recipients, liver, and we had a perfect tissue match on the pancreas. There were also two cornea recipients,” Julia shares. She continues, “I couldn’t be mad at Gary. It was obviously devastating, but some good had to come from it. There were a lot of things that told me that God was definitely involved. I believe that God made sure good things would come from it at least.”
When asked about the organ recipients, Julia shares, “All of the recipients except for one were primarily in their early to mid-30s. I still remember the liver recipient. And I don’t know why I remember this, but it’s just in my head. She was a 59-year-old, widowed mother of one. She got to see her grandkids grow up. We got a card from her a year or two after. I have to say that I never reached out individually to [the recipients] because I just didn’t think I was emotionally prepared for that. You know, it was bittersweet. Through this, so many other lives were touched.”
“Hey mom. Love you.”
The family participated in grief counseling for some time after Gary’s death. Julia shares, “Something that one of the counselors said, because we were talking about his random, ‘Hey, mom. Love you.’, was that maybe at some subconscious level, he knew that he had to get them all out because he knew that he wasn’t going to have his whole life to get them out there.”
Gary was in sixth grade when this tragic accident happened, and his classmates were severely impacted. A few weeks after the accident, his family went to the school to pick up his belongings. Julia reflects, “In the library, they had allowed the children to do a memorial. The kids could write memories and stuff, something that they remembered of Gary, and they put them up on this big board. And there were so many comments about his hair.” She laughs as she remembers this detail.
On organ donation, Julia shares, “Organ donation was a very positive experience.” She hopes that Gary would be proud of the decision they made to donate life. “Even the [organ recipients] that didn’t get a lot of time, that was still that much more time with their loved ones.”
“He loved life. He loved fun. It’s a feeling no parent should ever have to know,” Julia says. “I know that it’s a very emotional decision for families to make, but for me, it was more important to find something good to come out of a horrible situation. For us, it was a very positive experience.”
Learn more about organ donation or sign up to become a donor by visiting msora.org.