|By Doug Cook|
The Daily Courier
PRESCOTT - When Courtney Wagner received her driver's license at age 16, her father, Rhett, remembers his eldest daughter's desire to become an organ donor.
But the law at the time said she had to be at least 18 to register for the program.
In March 2007, a few months before graduating from Prescott High School, Courtney suffered a brain aneurism shortly after leaving a movie theater in Prescott Valley and later died. Staying true to their daughter's wishes to be a donor, Courtney's parents made the decision for her.
Several hours after Courtney's death, Rhett Wagner and his wife, Rhonda, donated both of their daughter's kidneys as well as her pancreas and liver to three people across the country who were awaiting organ transplants.
In death, Courtney gave the most precious of gifts - life.
Throughout April, families such as the Wagners celebrate National Donate Life Month, which sheds light on the importance of organ donation.
Although the law used to require that only people ages 18 and older could register as organ donors, the statutes have since changed to accept those who are at least 15 years and seven months old.
Rhett said the Donor Network of Arizona and Donate Life Arizona, which track and promote organ donation, have done a great deal to support and honor his family.
This month, the Wagner family is pushing for folks to register as donors. Donor Network of Arizona reports that more than 1,900 people in the state are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant, while more than 106,000 Americans are on the list. Eighteen people die each day in America waiting to receive an organ transplant. But in 2009, 114 organ donors in Arizona gave life to 300 organ recipients.
"It's a shame when somebody in someone's family passes and they didn't take the time or they didn't realize that they could save somebody else's life or improve somebody else's life greatly," Rhett said in early April. "It allows others to spend more time with their families. Some people have different beliefs and different thought processes. I understand all that, but it's important for others to know. Most people know about organ donation - they just don't think it really applies to them."
Rhonda agreed and added that it's a difficult subject for many to discuss.
"A lot of people don't like to talk about death, and so they don't even think organ donation is an option," she said.
Three years ago, Rhett recalls looking at Courtney in her hospital bed on life support and how his family soon came to the conclusion to donate her organs. He felt it was his obligation to give life to others out of gratitude for the life with Courtney his family had been given.
Michael Allen of Boston, a 65-year-old longtime marathon runner and father of three, was one of those who got a kidney from Courtney. Six years ago, Allen's kidneys failed. He later went on dialysis and would have died if not for the Wagners' donation on March 27, 2007.
To receive the kidney, Allen went through a series of tissue typing and blood work screenings. His name later went on a national registry that helps determine the closest match when an organ becomes available.
"Courtney and I were a perfect match and I was ecstatic," Allen said earlier this month. "I owe the Wagner family everything. But I feel so bad for that girl. She was all set to go, her life was planned out, and then she dies. It was just an awful thing."
Allen and Rhett periodically call each other and chat. They met in person two years ago.
"Courtney would have loved Michael," said Rhett, who himself registered as an organ donor at age 18. "He thanks Courtney out loud every day and it's completely changed his and his family's lives."
In addition to Allen, a young boy from California got Courtney's liver and a man who was from Phoenix received her other kidney and pancreas.
Doctors could not salvage Courtney's other vital organs, including her heart and lungs, because they were damaged during paramedics' attempts to resuscitate her.
For the past few years, on the anniversary of Courtney's death, just days before National Donate Life Month begins, Rhett and his family visit Courtney's grave at Mountain View Cemetery in Prescott, remembering her caring, giving spirit with a candlelight vigil. Forty to 50 people came to the vigil this year.
"Courtney was always happy and excited," Rhett said. "It seemed like she was the first one up and the last one to bed every day."
Meghan concurred, saying Courtney's personality was infectious.
"We didn't fight," Meghan said of the relationship with her sibling, who was 3-1/2 years older. "I hung out with her a lot. All of her friends always tell me I'm like their little sister because I was always with her."
Rhett said his faith in God has given him the strength to cope with Courtney's death, even though he's become more vulnerable since then. A general sales manager at Lamb Chevrolet in Prescott who has led a fairly comfortable life, Rhett said he soon realized how little control he had over everything after his daughter died.
"My relationships and my dependence on God are greater than they were before," said Rhett, who believes he will be with Courtney again some day. "I was pretty self-sufficient before. I realize how much I do depend on God for everyday things, not just the end."
Almost daily, Rhett visits and tends Courtney's grave, which is located toward the back northeast corner of the cemetery off Willow Creek Road behind Prescott High School's Bill Shepard Field.
He often places fresh flowers at the base of her headstone and, over Christmas, he and the family put a small tree with decorations next to it.
Rhett and his youngest daughter, Meghan, now 17, both have tattoos honoring Courtney's memory. Rhett's tattoo is on his left forearm. Meghan's tattoo, on her lower right leg, showcases what was Courtney's favorite Brighton heart necklace charm.
"I'm trying to live by her example," said Meghan, who wants to become a nurse after graduating from PHS. "I always try to be nice to everybody."
To learn more about organ donation in Arizona or to register to become a donor, call the Donor Network of Arizona at 1-800-94-DONOR or visit its website at www.DonateLifeAZ.org.
Those who live in the Prescott area and are either seeking organ donor support or awareness should call the Prescott New Life Society, a non-profit group, at 771-1776.
"It's not just the individual who receives the organ that benefits from organ donation, it's the donor's family and extended family, and the recipient's family and extended family, and it can go on for generations," Rhett said. "If enough people got involved, it could change the world."