By Shavonne Potts
When Joe Hampton got his license at 16, he wasn't so sure what being an organ donor meant.
He looked at his mother, Janie, when the question was asked.
"I said, 'Don't worry about it son. They don't use your organs until after you're dead — you won't need them,' " Janie Hampton said.
Not long after receiving his license and deciding he'd become an organ donor, Joe died in an April 1, 2009, single-car accident.
He lost control of his truck on Woodleaf Barber Road and struck a tree. He died on impact.
Joe's major organs, like his heart and liver, were unable to be donated. But his eyes, long bones and skin from his back were donated.
His veins and blood vessels were "harvested" but deemed unusable.
Janie Hampton holds the medical examiner who responded late at fault because he was "mowing his grass," she said.
She is advocating for legislation to specify that paramedics or emergency medical technicians can act as medical examiners to speed up the process and give organ procurement agencies a chance to receive organs.
Joe died sometime before 3:30 p.m. and Janie Hampton arrived at Rowan Regional Medical Center around 7:15 p.m. She told a patient advocate that her son was an organ donor, but she was told the medical examiner had to release the body first.
Janie Hampton sat in the emergency room, "holding my son's book bag," for five hours, waiting for her son's body to be released.
She said those five hours seemed like 50.
It was painful. She said she was not "able to see my baby, to hold him one last time — had to be a vision of hell."
She said the hospital staff tried to help. Janie, who is a nurse at Liberty Commons, called a physician she knew to see if he could do anything.
"I stood there and I made a promise — a promise to Joe and to God that no other mother would ever go through that. I would do something," she said.
After Joe's funeral, she made phone calls to find out why the medical examiner had not arrived sooner.
She said his supervisor, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Butts, told her the medical examiner was from Cornelius and said he was mowing his yard and in no shape to come.
"He told me the medical examiner had between 12 and 24 hours to respond to the case," Janie Hampton said.
She said her family and friends urged her to let the issue go, but she couldn't.
Butts said people failed to realize a medical examiner has other duties.
"Local practitioners agree to do this in addition to their duties," he said.
Many are physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners. Some are paramedics.
"While law enforcement provides 24-hour service and fire departments provide 24-hour service, that's not the way the medical examiner system works," he said.
Butts said if a potential donor is deceased and not on "life support," then no organs are transplantable, though various tissues can be harvested, including skin, bone, corneas and heart valves.
"The window of time to effect the collection of these tissues is quite large, up to a day in some instances," he said.
Janie Hampton says that window was not enough to use some of her son's organs, specifically his veins and vessels.
"I fail to see how the fact that an ME, you don't have a coroner in your county, was at home attending to personal matters when he was called is an issue," Butts said in an e-mail.
Rowan County has not had a coroner for more than a decade. Law enforcement officers contact a medical examiner on duty, but they are usually from another county.
Butts added that virtually all medical examiners have other jobs.
"They do not sit in some office waiting for the phone to ring about a death under ME jurisdiction during an 8 hour shift. When they are notified they gather the information they need and then coordinate their affairs so that they can examine the decedent in a timely fashion. It is unrealistic given the structure of the system to expect them to always be able to drop what they are doing to go to a scene or to immediately inspect remains," Butts wrote.
Janie Hampton said timing was everything and that made the difference in someone else being able to be helped by her son's donated tissue.
"If he doesn't think that can save someone's life, he and I definitely are seeing things in a different light," she said.
The general statute says the chief medical examiner can appoint one or more physicians licensed to practice in the state or a licensed physician assistant, nurse, a coroner or an individual who has taken approved course of training as required by the chief medical examiner.
Janie Hampton said she wants that statute to clearly state a responding paramedic can release a body.
"They are more available to do it quickly. Timing is what wasted Joe's veins and vessels. How many lives did that effect," she said.
She said this is an issue she doesn't want to give up on.
Paramedics in Surry County are also medical examiners, and she said it is her understanding that this system works well.
Butts said paramedics have a level of training suitable for some things, but that didn't mean it was more efficient than an on-call medical examiner.
"There are several counties that utilize paramedics as medical examiners. It can work better or worse, it depends on the folks," he said.
Butts said Surry County also has a physician who works with the paramedics.
They only have about a dozen cases a year that require a medical examiner, he said.
Hampton said it was someone with the N.C. Eye Bank who told her about having paramedics work as medical examiners. She said an EMT pronounced her son dead, so if he could do that she wonders why he couldn't release her son's body so his tissue could be donated.
Hampton thought now was the perfect time to share her story.
"There's a certain amount of healing that has to take place," she said.
April was the month Joe was born and the month he died. April is also Donate Life Month.
Joe was able to help seven people see. One was a 39-year-old man who received a cornea transplant and the others received sclera, the white of the eye, to be used for people with glaucoma.
Joe would've celebrated his 19th birthday Friday.