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April is National Donate Life Month

How One Missouri Baptist Sullivan Hospital Employee Turned the Tragic Loss of her Son into an Extraordinary Crusade to Save Countless Others through Organ Donation

  • 13 April 2023
  • Author: Natalie Counts
  • Number of views: 494

At Missouri Baptist Sullivan Hospital (MBSH), we want to do our part to help raise awareness about organ donation and how one person’s donation can be the ultimate gift that saves someone else’s life. That’s why we’re sharing the story of our own Amy Wildhaber, MSN, RN, director of operations and support services at MBSH, and her son, Zachary ‘Zac.’ Their story features the unimaginable heartbreaking loss of a child, which transitioned into an extraordinary crusade to not only educate others about the importance of organ donation, but also inspire more people to become registered donors. 

Zac’s Donor Story

Zac’s donor story began the morning of February 13, 2012. As his mom, Amy, was getting ready to leave for work at MBSH, she walked into Zac’s room to wake him and remind him to be careful as he drove to college that day – the local weather was forecasting a snowstorm. She also instructed him to watch the news, because his classes might be canceled due to the impending weather.

“I had plans to leave work early that day to get home before dark, because of the snowstorms that had hit our area and to prepare for my youngest child’s birthday celebration,” said Amy. “But like most days in an ER, things did not go as planned, and I left the hospital about three hours later than expected.”

Amy’s drive home took a bit longer given the poor road conditions. When she was about a mile from home, the winds really picked up and created whiteout conditions, forcing her to pull over for about a minute or so. She pulled back onto the highway to make the remainder of the drive home; however, as she approached the top of the hill, she could see that someone was redirecting traffic. Amy assumed someone had slid off the road.

A Tragic Accident

“As I inched up to go around the traffic, I saw the camouflage pattern on the bottom of the truck. It was an accident, a head on collision and it was my child,” said Amy. “There were only three people there at this time – no EMS or fire department – only one couple who had stopped and the man that was driving the other truck. I stayed at Zac’s side and continued to talk to Zac as we waited for more help to arrive. I told him I loved him, how strong he was, and to hang on because help was on the way. Of course, I did all the talking as Zac was unconscious.”

Amy recognizes that many people might think that it would be the worst thing to approach an accident knowing your child was involved. While she would never want to have to experience that again, she believes God knew she needed to be there.

“I think God knew that I would have questioned everything that took place if I hadn’t been there. I guess that’s the curse of being a nurse,” said Amy.

Zac was transferred as quickly as possible to the nearest hospital and after some stabilizing treatment, he was then transferred to St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Unfortunately, his injuries were very severe, and the doctors and nurses did their best to prepare Amy and her husband, Troy, for the worst. They kept vigil at his bedside for the next 24 hours, dreading and fearing that he might not make it.

Answering the Most Difficult Questions

“Looking back, I recall having to answer the most difficult questions that I’ve ever been asked during my lifetime. The first coming from my husband, looking at me with fear in his eyes as he asked me ‘is he going to make it out of this?’ My heart aching, I simply hung my head and said no, he’s not,” said Amy. “The next question came several hours later when the nurse asked me when I was alone, ‘do you want him coded if his heart stops?’ Again, I instantly knew the answer, but those were the hardest words that I’d ever have to speak as I said, ‘no, don’t put him through that.’”

The third question Amy was asked was about organ donation. Generally, as a nurse, she has always been in favor and support of organ donation; however, in this case, she was no longer in her role as a nurse. Amy found herself in uncharted territory. She was having to make this decision with her own child in mind.

“Troy and I already knew the answer. It was another one of God’s interventions,” said Amy.  “About a month before the accident, we were having a causal conversation with Zac in the car, and we talked about organ donation. Zac didn’t hesitate at all: ‘If it can help someone else, use it. What am I going to need it for?’ This was typical of Zac – he wanted everyone to be happy, and it bothered him immensely if someone was hurt or sad. He would do whatever he could to help them and make them smile. At that point, our prayer requests have changed, and now we’re praying that recipients are found and that the transplants are successful.”

Zac’s Lifesaving Gifts

It took the whole next day to work through the process of locating the recipients and preparing to harvest Zac’s organs. On February 16, 2012, Zac became a hero to five people who had been waiting a long time for that important phone call. They were being given a second chance at life. Zac gifted his heart to an 11-year-old boy from Texas named Aldofo. His lungs were gifted to a 54-year-old man from Missouri named Mark. His liver went to a 75-year-old man from Missouri named Thomas. Zac’s pancreas and one kidney went to a 39-year-old woman, and a 57-year-old man received his right kidney. There were many other recipients who benefitted from Zac’s tissue donation.

“We understand that to these people and many others Zac was viewed as God-send and a hero,” said Amy. “For us, these recipients gave us something to hold onto, something positive to come out of this horrific experience. Something we needed to survive. As of today, all of Zac’s recipients are doing well.”

Of course, Zac’s story spread fast in the small community, and the outpouring of support and love was overwhelming for Amy, Troy, and their family. They were also overwhelmed by their grief.

“Personally, I had much fear that I would become angry and the thought of going on without him was unbearable,” said Amy. “We just turned everything over to God. We had a strong faith and would not question God’s will, and we knew that God would guide us in the direction of healing. However, we had no idea what that would lead us to. The support for the community continued along with the interest and questions. Many people had positive things to say about organ donation and how wonderful it was, but most said they really hadn’t given it much thought until now. What happened next is truly God’s will.”

Change One Thing, Change Everything

An incredible opportunity presented itself less than two months after Zac’s passing. The first week of April 2012, Amy told Troy and their children that MBSH was working on the annual education at the hospital for organ, tissue, and eye donation. Amy wasn’t sure, but she was considering sharing Zac’s story to assist with the education.

“My family was quickly on board and felt this should be shared beyond the walls of the hospital,” said Amy. “In less than 20 minutes in our kitchen, our family had decided to share our story and educate others about the need and process of organ, tissue, and eye donation, and its effects on the donor family.”

Amy and her family also outlined an initial goal: to educate others on the topic and help 1,000 people register on the national donor registry list. Given that every donor can impact the lives of 25 to 50 people, Zac’s family knew that registering 1,000 people meant that at least 25,000 people would be impacted by Zac’s story. They felt that this was a proper legacy for Zac, which would soon become known as ‘Zac’s Challenge.’

Zac’s Challenge

“At the time, we really had no idea if this was a realistic goal or not. Regardless, that is what we set out to do,” said Amy. “We spread the word by setting up booths at community events, formal presentation at clubs, and pretty much anyone else that would listen. God’s intervention is always present here. It’s the craziest thing – just when we would run into a roadblock and think we’ve used all our resources, unsure of where to go next, we would ask God for some guidance and direction and numerous things would open up.”

Amy and her family’s dedication and determination to this extraordinary cause paid off. In less than one year, more than 1,300 people had registered through ‘Zac’s Challenge.’ Since then, countless others have registered on the national donor registry. The goal for ‘Zac’s Challenge’ is to get organ donation awareness out to the public. His family has committed to keep sharing information about organ donation awareness and to assist others to make the decision that is right for them. They are hopeful that by sharing organ donation education and stories like Zac’s, they can assist more people to register to become an organ donor.

“On February 14, 2012, our lives were changed forever with the death of our son,” said Amy. “Zac is greatly missed every day. However, over the past 10 years, we find much joy in knowing that Zac has helped so many people through organ donation. This is the most comforting feeling anyone can experience in the face of death. Without organ donation, Zac’s story is a tragic loss. With organ donation, Zac’s story is a tragic loss that ends with a lot of love and healing for all involved. Life is all about choices: change one thing, change everything.”

If you’re interested in becoming an organ donor, please visit Zac’s Challenge at https://www.zacschallenge.net for more information on how to add yourself to the national donor registry. With thousands and thousands of people waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant, you can offer hope and a lifesaving gift to these patients and their families, just like Zac and his family did by choosing organ donation.

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