Contributed by Regional West Medical Center
Scottsbluff surgeon Dr. Rommie Hughes has always been an advocate for organ donation.
“If you give someone life out of a death, it seems more meaningful,” said Dr. Hughes.
On more than a few occasions, he has counseled families as they considered organ donation. Then in March 2010, the unthinkable happened. His nephew, 19-year-old Chadron State College freshman Garrett Schlichtemeier of Ogallala, was fatally injured in an automobile accident during a spring break trip to Alabama. This time, Dr. Hughes would be counseling his own sister and brother-in-law about donating their son’s organs.
Garrett had accompanied his roommate to his home in Alabama for spring break. They visited the Alabama Gulf Shores, and on their way back, they stopped to visit his roommate’s friends at Auburn University. Late Sunday night, Garrett and two others decided to go get something to eat.
Just a few blocks from where they were staying, the driver swerved to avoid another vehicle and lost control of the car. All three people were thrown from the vehicle, but only Garrett was seriously injured.
After receiving the fateful middle-of-the-night phone call that their son had been injured in a car accident, Garrett’s parents, Shari and Jeff Schlichtemeier, met up with her brother, Hughes, at the Denver airport for the flight to Alabama. Having kept in phone contact with the Alabama hospital staff since he first heard about Garrett’s traumatic closed head injury, Hughes knew the gravity of the situation. Driving from the airport to the hospital, he gently guided the conversation to thoughts on organ donation.
By the time the Schlichtemeiers and Hughes arrived at the hospital, Shari said they “knew in our hearts he was gone.”
Garrett had been declared brain dead that morning. His family stayed with him for three hours, but Shari and Jeff didn’t have to think long about donating their son’s organs and tissue.
“The decision was easy, we are both proponents of organ donation,” said Shari. “He was pristine. How could we as good Christians waste his organs? We both felt strongly that something good has got to come from this.”
As it turned out, Garrett would have agreed. The little red heart on his driver’s license told the doctors and nurses at East Alabama Medical Center that he had chosen to be an organ donor.
By a strange coincidence, on the day the Schlichtemeiers and Hughes arrived at the hospital, the nurse who was caring for Garrett in the intensive care unit was to give a presentation about organ donation at a noon meeting. About the same time, her patient’s parents made the decision to donate their son’s organs, setting the wheels in motion for a nationwide search to identify suitable organ and tissue recipients.
The Power of One
When the hospital chaplain met with the family, he told them about a campaign called “The Power of One,” which encourages people to donate organs. In a nutshell, it states:
n One person has the power to restore lives through organ, eye, and tissue donation
n One donor can save or enhance more than 50 lives
n One family can make the most courageous decision
n One hospital can make it possible for hundreds to have a second chance at life
n One story can inspire dozens to take action
It takes only ONE to inspire, save lives, create hope, offer comfort, and be a champion.
“Garrett did not speak or move a muscle, and didn’t need to; the energy that radiated off him was felt by everyone. Even in a most difficult moment Garrett’s light continued to shine,” said Hospital Chaplain Rev. P. Scott Lee. “I said to Jeff, Shari, and Laramie (Garrett’s sister) the phrase, ‘The Power of One.’ I was thinking about this and about how Garrett always wore #2 almost his entire sports career and his impact, then said we should change the phrase to say ‘The Power of 2.’”
East Alabama Medical Center has a tradition of flying the “Donate Life” flag below the American flag each time a donation occurs at the hospital. Somehow, someone decided to fly Garrett’s flag on a pole by itself. It was the first “Donate Life” flag to ever be flown solo at the medical center. A local news reporter and organ donation proponent, noticed and stopped to ask why. The hospital chaplain asked Shari and Jeff if they would be willing to talk to the reporter about donating Garrett’s organs and tissue. Perhaps inspired by “The Power of One,” they agreed and were interviewed on TV shortly before Garrett’s organs and tissue were harvested.
Patty, Garrett’s ICU nurse, helped the Schlichtemeiers through the organ donation process and gave Dr. Hughes free reign of her office while he was at the hospital. She remains friends with the family even now. The kindness and graciousness demonstrated by the entire hospital staff – the chaplain, the neurosurgeon, the organ donation coordinator, and others – made it easier to move forward with Garrett’s surgery, two days after the accident.
That is the Schlichtemeier family’s motto and Garrett lived it to its fullest. It was the motto his father and football coach, Jeff Schlichtemeier, preached to him from a young age. It was the motto that inspired him as a three-sport letterman and motivated him to be the top male athlete at Ogallala High School and an All-State Football defensive back, it drove him to maintain a 3.97 cumulative GPA, and propelled him to be selected one of four KOLN/KGIN Nebraska State Scholar/Athletes in 2009. The motto proved true as he was awarded full-tuition and a football scholarship at Chadron State College. And according to his mother, the inspirational motto symbolizes Garrett’s short life.
Garrett’s lungs went to a 64-year-old man and his heart, to a 21-year-old man. One kidney was given to a 5-year-old girl and the other kidney and pancreas to a 34-year-old female. His small bowel went to a 27-year-old single mother with three children, including a six-month-old. His liver went to a 62-year-old male.
“He saved six lives,” said Shari. “He lives on through other people and it’s comforting.”
Shari’s brother echoes her sentiments.
“It was a tragic loss, but clearly, he positively affected six other lives,” said Hughes. “I always felt strongly about organ donation. Now I have more empathy for people in the situation.”
Having had time to reflect on the way Garrett helped others despite his tragic and untimely death, both Shari and her brother encourage everyone to personally consider organ donation.
“It’s good to think about it before being faced with situation where a decision must be made quickly,” said Hughes. “All families should discuss organ donation.”
“Garrett’s and our choice of organ donation gave six people the opportunity for a second chance at a quality life,” said his mother. “Organ donation has allowed a physical part of him to continue to live on. It also provides another means for us to continue to fulfill our goal, which is to celebrate Garrett’s life. We will always have memories of Garret.”
In the year since Garrett died, the Schlichtemeiers have received regular updates from a liaison at East Alabama Medical Center on the status of those who received Garrett’s organs. The family has had direct contact with three of the six recipients and is confident that communication will continue to increase. The man who received Garrett’s lungs and his wife are planning to visit the Schlichtemeiers this summer.
“We think of the organ recipients as ‘extended family,’” said Shari. “We feel we made a great decision and the contact with the recipients really reinforces our commitment to organ donation.”