A True Story – A son’s tragedy turns to hope for others


This is what Leslie does for a living….although not a nurse like Karen and Rob in this tragic story about Emerson, Leslie’s role with BC Transplant is just the same.  Educated as a social worker, now trained clinician in organ donation….we are proud to post this story of a mother and father who unexpectedly had to say good-bye to their son.  Leslie sees this almost every time she is on call…people say “how do you do it?” 

What makes her job bearable with all the tragedy and sudden deaths are families like Emerson’s.  And just as important is knowing colleagues of hers in other Provinces are being praised for their hard work, devotion to donation and families.  Families mean so much to us at BCT and obviously to organ donation specialists/coordinators no matter where.

Please read and register to be a donor where you live.  This is one of the most poignant posts we have ever posted.

Thanks.

“When the time came for my last farewell, I can tell you the knowledge he was going into organ donation surgery gave me great strength. I whispered to him how much he was loved by his mother, by his brothers and sister. I told him that his final act in life was incredible and inspiring. And then I turned my back and walked out of his hospital room, pausing for one last glimpse of my son.

This is the story of Emerson’s organ donation.”

A son's tragedy turns to hope for others

Emerson Curran, who was killed in Yellowknife during the weekend of August 24-25, 2013

Photograph by: Jillian Gummo

My wife and I made our first trip to Edmonton on the weekend of Aug. 24. It was a trip that left our lives shattered and introduced a depth of sadness that we never could have imagined. Yet we left the city with a degree of comfort, knowing that our profound loss was the gain of many others.

This is my recollection of that trip.

No sooner had our plane from Ottawa touched down at Edmonton International Airport than I dialed the main number of Royal Alexandra Hospital. With a stress-filled voice, I asked to speak with the intensive care unit. “My name is Michael Curran. I’m the father of Emerson Curran. Can you tell me if my son was medevaced to your hospital?” The nurse confirmed that Emerson had arrived from Yellowknife and he was in critical condition. “We just landed in Edmonton and we’re getting into a taxi. We will be at the hospital soon.” I believe the time was 11 a.m.

Several hours earlier, my wife was awakened by a nightmarish phone call, one that is dreaded by all parents of teenagers and young adults. It was sometime around 4 a.m. in Ottawa. A doctor from Yellowknife introduced himself and delivered the devastating news. Our 20-year-old son was badly beaten at a house party. He was in a coma and the situation was very serious. My wife screamed for me to come to the downstairs speaker phone, away from our three sleeping children. I listened to the doctor speak as an incredible feeling of dread descended. It didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem possible. This was Emerson’s last night in Yellowknife. He was only hours away from leaving.

I did my best to fight off an overpowering urge to vomit. I muttered a few words to acknowledge that I understood what the doctor was telling us. “I think you should immediately get a flight,” he told us. I sensed an unspoken message that shook me to the core.

Sometime after 6 a.m., my wife and I boarded a flight in Ottawa that was destined for Edmonton with a stop in Toronto. I focused all my attention on a small video display that tracked our westward progress. We held each other for most of the flight as tears streamed down our faces. Cut off from any possible medical updates on the plane, it seemed like an eternity.

Once we arrived at the Royal Alex, we made our way to ICU and announced our arrival on an intercom. “A doctor will be with you very shortly,” we were told.

Within moments, we were escorted into a small, dimly lit room and asked to take a seat. I don’t recall the exact words the doctor spoke, but I’m fairly certain we got our desperate update in his third sentence. “Emerson is gone,” he said, unleashing a torrent of emotions.

After a few moments of complete emotional breakdown, the doctor resumed, telling us that a test had to be conducted to determine if any blood was still circulating to his brain. In the meantime, he was on life support and we could visit him.

We were led through the corridors of ICU to a large room that contained my comatose son.

The last time my wife and I saw Emerson was Mother’s Day weekend. We gathered with his four grandparents, his two brothers and sister and his girlfriend for a multipurpose backyard barbecue. It was a joint Mother’s Day tribute and Yellowknife sendoff.

Emerson had just finished his second year in philosophy at the University of Ottawa and worked part time at a local fresh produce and meats grocery.

What should you know about Emerson? He was our first-born son, who came to us in our 20s. He had such a joyful demeanour that he brought smiles to faces of strangers and instantly found a place in the hearts of his family.

Emerson was spirited and fun-loving. We fondly remember him at the age of four arriving at the busy neighbourhood park to exclaim, “Who wants to play?” The older kids looked at him quizzically, but within minutes his infectious enthusiasm won them over.

He was an early reader, devouring the Harry Potter novels starting in second grade. His teachers complained that he was too social, speeding through his lessons and then wanting to talk to classmates. He read the Bible, the dictionary and later spent hours on Wikipedia. He had a thirst for knowledge and cherished long contemplative discussions. In his late teen years, I would often awake at 2 or 3 a.m. to hear a murmur in our house. I would walk to Emerson’s room, knock on his door and slowly swing it open to find him in a Skype conversation he didn’t want to end.

Emerson was active in sports, but he seemed to take the greatest enjoyment in the camaraderie of athletics, rather than individual achievements. He had a big frame, standing six feet two inches and weighing more than 180 pounds. He played wide receiver and slot back for his high school football team, a dynasty in Ottawa that won several city championships. Emerson’s football coach joked they won despite him, not because of him.

By no means was he perfect. He had an extreme aversion to cleaning his dishes or his bedroom. (Although when he did clean, the result was worthy of military inspection, a beneficial outcome of his years in cadets.) And he often used his persuasion to strike one-sided deals with his siblings. “Do my dishes before mom gets home and I’ll let you use my skateboard for two days.”

In late April, unsure of his career aspirations, he pitched us an idea to work for the summer with his cousin in Yellowknife as a dock hand at an airplane float base on Great Slave Lake. One phone interview later, he had a summer job.

To my wife and me, the idea had instant appeal. It would fill Emerson’s desperate desire for independence, the adventure had an expiry date that would see him return to university in the fall and it gave him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the north.

Emerson left Ottawa on May 11 with a long stopover in Edmonton. True to his carefree and curious nature, he took a bus from the airport to the bus terminal, where he found an abandoned bicycle. He toured the downtown and city on a 20-kilometre bike trek, posting 29 photos to his Facebook account. He arrived in Yellowknife later that night, settling into a house mostly filled with young bush pilots. “Every night in YK is an adventure,” he posted.

Back in Edmonton ICU on Aug. 24, the unimaginable news that Emerson would not recover from his massive brain injury settled into our consciousness. Mid-afternoon, my wife and I spoke again with the doctor. Summoning incredible courage, my wife said, “Organ donation. Emerson talked to me about organ donation.” To my memory, the doctor looked surprised and responded, “I was going to raise that with you. Thank you for bringing this up. We can speak later about it.”

Later that day, we decided my wife would fly home to be with our children as they awoke on Sunday morning. We knew the inevitable end might come that day. I would await Emerson’s brain test.

I didn’t sleep much that night in ICU, but rested my dizzy head for a few hours. The desperately awaited test was delayed. Finally, in the early afternoon of Aug. 25 as I slumped in a hospital room chair, Emerson was wheeled back into his room and the doctor approached me with a grim look. “The test was conclusive. There is no blood flow,” he said, letting that news settle in for a few minutes. “Are you still in favour of organ donation?” I nodded my head.

One hour later, a kind-hearted nurse named Karen arrived from HOPE, Alberta’s organ procurement and donation group. She sat bedside in Emerson’s hospital room and asked me questions about my officially brain-dead son. “Tell me about him,” she said with genuine interest. I told some stories and we shared some tears. She proceeded to explain, in great detail but also with simplicity, the organ donation options. After very little discussion, I signed the necessary forms.

What happened next gave me great solace.

The organ donation nurse parked herself right outside of the hospital room and began the long task of finding recipients. This entailed countless phone conversations that, to my memory, started sometime around 5 p.m. and stretched throughout the night and early morning.

Looking for some form of distraction, I would regularly ask Karen for updates. She seemed only too happy to share the latest. I understood the main priority was to find recipients for the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the pancreas.

Here I was, thousands of miles from home, reeling from the official death of my oldest son and this nurse was working miracles 20 feet from Emerson’s bed. In a time of absolute despair from the senseless killing of my son, this was a glimmer of hope.

Sometime around 7 a.m., Karen was replaced by another nurse at HOPE named Rob. More phone calls. As the day unfolded, the organ donation scenario started to jell. Organ by organ, I started to get stories of unknown people awaiting transplants. Emerson’s healthy organs were finding new homes in the sick. “This has gone better than we could have anticipated,” Rob told me.

Emerson made his organ donation wishes known to my wife during a long drive from Peterborough, where he was visiting a friend at Trent University, to Ottawa. Drawing on his philosophy studies, he shared his perspective on life and the afterlife. He believed that once life was extinguished, his bodily remains should absolutely be used to help others. There was no doubt in his mind, according to my wife.

Back in Edmonton, I grappled with the realization that my time with Emerson was quickly coming to an end. He was still on life support, but organ donation surgery would need to occur within hours. I held his hand. I washed his face. I placed my hand on his beating heart. I prayed.

When the time came for my last farewell, I can tell you the knowledge he was going into organ donation surgery gave me great strength. I whispered to him how much he was loved by his mother, by his brothers and sister. I told him that his final act in life was incredible and inspiring. And then I turned my back and walked out of his hospital room, pausing for one last glimpse of my son.

This is the story of Emerson’s organ donation.

I’m sharing this personal and painful story with you in the hopes that it might persuade other people, especially young people like Emerson, to become registered donors.

I respect the fact there might be valid reasons why some people do not want to donate. I’m not here to preach or judge anyone.

But I also believe there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people who are willing to donate and have not signed up.

My wife and I hope that political leaders and health care administrators work diligently to ensure that registering for organ donation is a simple and straightforward process. I know in Ontario, it takes less than 30 seconds to register on the www.beadonor.ca website. Emerson’s friends met on Sept. 1 at local restaurant and 71 people signed up. Dozens more have done so online. It’s so easy.

I also realize that support of front line hospital staff, the doctors and nurses, is imperative to maximize organ donation. It takes training, courage and compassion for hospital staff to raise the issue with grieving families. That is not easy.

Emerson’s story is only half the story. There is another part of it that I do not know. It’s the story of 4,000 recipients desperately waiting for donations that could miraculously save, or radically improve, their lives.

Life is precious. I think Emerson wanted to do everything he could to preserve it. I hope you will, too.

Michael Curran is publisher of the Ottawa Business Journal.

Register to be an organ donor with the BC Transplant Society.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

15 thoughts on “A True Story – A son’s tragedy turns to hope for others

  1. Wonderful article….been on both sides…I’m an organ transplant recipient, 18 fantastic years this coming November. Lost my best mate at the age of 28, rock climbing in Scotland…due to knowing me and my troubles his parents donated all organs… :)
    Be nice if everyone reading this post would reblog….

    • Wow. Congrats on your transplant sad about your friend. Agree wish more would read this post but since it’s not motorcycle related many who stop by this blog avoid posts like this for some reason. Wish everyone would share as well too. Thanks for your comment and letting us know a little of your story.

  2. A chance meeting yesterday led me to catch up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 30 years. Due to an extremely rare genetic condition, he needs a heart-lung transplant and has to fight every day just to stay alive, but he does so with a dignity and strength that I can hardly contemplate. Thanks for posting this and for the work that you do.

    • it’s a small world I tell you. I hear all the time someone knows someone in need of a transplant. I wish your friend success in his journey and yeah I know that means at the expense of another. As I always say until we can reverse death offering donation to families might just provide that one ounce of decision making and control they need to at least make some sense of a untimely death of a loved one.

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