Organ donation directly influenced Ashley Peterson’s decision to become a registered nurse. At only 14 years old, when faced with a family tragedy, Ashley watched nurses care for her brother with sincere kindness and empathy.
Today, Ashley volunteers for LifeSource and serves as co-chair of Trails4Transplants, a long-distance, multiple-week horse trail ride to promote awareness for organ, eye and tissue donation.
In her career as a nurse, Ashley listens to heartbeats regularly. None are as distinct as her brother Blake’s.
On June 11, 2000, my family and I faced the unimaginable death of my 19-year-old brother, Blake Allen Johnson.
Blake, my mom, dad and brother were celebrating at a wedding the night of the accident. Blake’s vehicle was in an area where many minors had been consuming alcohol. Fearful something could happen to Blake’s pickup or someone would attempt to drink and drive, my mom decided the vehicle needed to be moved to a safer area. Blake watched from afar as my mom proceeded, and he became angry because she did not ask to move it.
Blake jumped on the running boards and began to argue through the window. They slowly drove down the rural blacktop road, with my dad and oldest brother following behind. A car came up behind my dad and brother, passed them and then proceeded to pass my mom, with Blake on the running boards. Blake looked down, became disoriented and fell, hitting the back of his head. My mom jumped out of the pickup to hold him. Blake looked up into the sky, called “Oh, God” and then lost consciousness.
After returning home from summer camp, my uncles took me to the hospital that Sunday morning. When I arrived, my parents and my brother were still in their wedding outfits from the night before. They trembled with tears when they saw me.
My parents escorted me in to see Blake. The first thing I saw was the ventilator. I sat at his bedside and prayed. I laid my head against the crisp white sheets and listened to his strong heartbeat.
Blake’s doctors came in and explained his condition. He had a severe traumatic brain injury, and if it wasn’t for the ventilator, he could not breathe on his own. The words shattered our lives.
Shortly after they confirmed Blake’s death, a hospital liaison from LifeSource discussed our options. She stated he would be a candidate to donate his organs and how organ donation can help save other lives. As she was explaining the options I thought, ‘What in the world is happening? Why is she talking to us? Is this really happening?’
Her compassion and sorrow for our loss was truly genuine. Then, she asked, “Do you think organ donation is something your family would like to do?” Hit with the harsh reality, somehow the answer ‘yes’ came from my mouth.
My parents decided the decision would have to be unanimous. We had until the next day to decide.
We went to my sister’s apartment and discussed the donation option. One of Blake’s good friends told us they had been out one night at a friend’s house and everyone threw their wallets on a coffee table. They were looking through each others’ wallets and noticed Blake was the only one with ‘organ donor’ on his license. We looked through Blake’s belongings and sure enough, he was a donor. The answer was clear.
We returned to the hospital to say our final goodbyes. We prayed over him and praised God for his life. I laid my head on the crisp white sheets to listen to his heart one last time. I’ll never forget leaving that hospital room. Ever.
Blake was always a giver, even up to his last breath. He was the 19th donor from North Dakota that year. The gifts of his heart, liver, pancreas and kidneys saved four lives. His liver went to a 10-year-old girl in a neighboring hometown, whose mother worked with my mom. And, his heart went to Herb.
In September of 2011, our family drove to Iowa to meet Blake’s heart recipient. What a joy it was to see John ‘Herb’ get to watch his children and grandchildren grow, celebrate holidays and his 50th wedding anniversary.
Herb’s family wrote us Father’s Day cards before we met. Blake was killed on Father’s Day that year, and they knew because of Blake’s gift, they get to celebrate their dad. We had an instant connection.
Herb’s story picked up where ours had ended. It was exhilarating to hear the rest of the story from our traumatic loss to the renewal of Herb’s life. At the end of our first meeting, I finally worked up the courage to ask him if we could listen to his heart with my stethoscope. He responded, “Oh yes, please do.”
For the first time in 11 years, I got to listen to my brother’s heart beat again. It sounded exactly as it did the day Blake left us.
We have continued to keep close contact with Herb and his family. They are our family now, too.
(Summer is Ashley’s older sister, and Darlene is John’s wife.)
Gifts of Life, Happiness and Comfort
The decision to donate brought back so much life and happiness to our family through such a dreadful time. Blake’s ultimate gift of life to others was also a gift to us. Because of the gift, our family has survived the unthinkable. It brings us much comfort to know Blake’s legacy will continue on through his decision to be a donor.
Our Living Legacy donor wall dedication will honor donors like Blake who have shared the gifts of organ, tissue and eye donation. Learn more about this event on April 23. During National Donate Life Month, let life bloom by registering as a donor.
Ashley Peterson works as a registered nurse at Altru. Originally from Warren, Minn., she enjoys dog training, hunting, gardening, volunteering for LifeSource and is an active church member.