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Stories of hope

Jennifer Wickliffe: Hunter Lives On

Jennifer with son Hunter

It was Tuesday afternoon, January 7, 2014 my phone rang. It was the phone call that is every parent’s worst nightmare. It was a hospital chaplain. I could never have prepared myself for the words I heard next. He said, “Mrs. Wickliffe, I regret to inform you that your son, Hunter, has been in an accident, and we do not expect him to survive.” I immediately told him, that I was on my way and to please do everything until I could get there.

It felt like it took forever to get my kids and husband in the car and on the road, to begin the hour and half trip to get to the hospital. Upon our arrival, I felt incredibly nervous but was still calm. The waiting room was jam packed with family, friends and what seemed like hundreds of teenagers. My dear friend managed to get me through the crowd and to Hunter’s room. The nurse in me immediately began scanning the room and identifying the machines. My parents were already by his side. I could see the monitors, the IV pumps, the ventilator was breathing for him and then, I looked at my son. At that very moment, the mother in me kicked in and I lost it!

It took me about 30 minutes to get my emotions under control and then, I started to analyze the situation. He was on lots of medication to keep his blood pressure up, he was receiving blood and the ventilator was breathing for him. In my mind I remember thinking, maybe it is not as bad as they think. The charge nurse came in to update me on the extent of Hunter’s injuries. She was very nice, but spoke very simply to me, like a person with no medical background. I immediately asked to speak to the neurologist because I needed the facts. She explained to me that he probably would not speak to me on the phone, and that he was not even in the hospital. I begged her to at least try to contact him, so she left to attempt to get him on the phone.

To my relief and surprise, the charge nurse came back and said she had the doctor on the phone. The doctor immediately explained that he would not usually do this on the phone but since I was a critical care nurse, he knew I needed answers. He explained that Hunter had sustained a severe head injury, lung contusions, lacerations to his left arm and a bad femur fracture. He told me that he expected in the next 12 hours that Hunter would be completely brain dead.

As a nurse in the PICU, I have seen many organ donation cases with my patients and have always wondered what I would do if it were me. The doctor then told us that when Hunter turned 18, he had gone online and registered to be an organ donor. This should not have surprised me, because our son was always helping people. The doctor asked me if I would be willing to honor his decision. I did not even hesitate to say YES. The donation process took several days, but I would never change my decision. Our son was able to save the lives of four people and help with research and education. In knowing that our son lives on has given us a peace that I do not believe we would have been able to obtain. I have been able to meet and have given several talks with my son’s heart recipient. We share a strong bond that keeps both of us pursuing our dreams and thanking God for life.

With Hunter’s precious gifts of life other families can still have their loved one present and are able to still make memoires. As time has moved forward, I am so very passionate about organ donation. I have changed career pathways and now am a Certified Procurement Transplant Coordinator. I travel all over the United States to help families in similar situations to try my best to save as many lives as possible while hopefully giving the families and ICU staff some peace. I have a unique 360 degree perspective when I am in the ICU knowing what each person is going through during donation. I have been the nurse, the respiratory therapist, and the mom. To this day, I am thankful for the decision to honor Hunter’s legacy to live on in others.

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