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Two Families, One Heart

by Louise Truong

AT 2:30 P.M. on June 7, 1997, Tommy Weiss arrived to the house of his best friend, Patrick. The fourth-grade boys decided to go buy soda at the nearby Lucky’s supermarket. Because the grocery store sat at the bottom of a hill, less than two miles from the house, the boys wanted to skateboard to the store. But Patrick’s mother felt it would be safer for her to drive them there. She loaded the boys into her red 1995 Mitsubishi 3000 GT at 3:30 pm. Tommy sat in the back seat as they drove down the steep hill of Pacific Island Drive. Despite the 45-mph speed limit, witnesses would later say the car was moving as fast as 55 mph as it continued down the curving road. Less than two minutes after they left the house, less than half a mile from Lucky’s, the car struck a signal pole at the intersection of Pacific Island Drive and Highlands Avenue. None of the passengers was wearing a seatbelt, but only Tommy Weiss lacked airbag protection.

By the time his mother, Donna Telles, arrived at Mission Hospital, the regional trauma center, Tommy had already been in surgery for three hours. He’d suffered blunt-force trauma to the head and had slipped into a coma. The neurosurgeons were desperately trying to stop the swelling in Tommy’s brain. Sitting in the waiting room, his mother prayed to God to heal Tommy. Donna, a Delta Airlines stewardess, had last seen her son two days before when she dropped him off at Moulten Elementary School before flying to Guadalajara. She believed that Tommy would survive. When Tommy came out of surgery, with a shaved head – his hair had always been his favorite feature – both his sister and mother worried that when he woke up he’d be furious to find his hair gone. Three tubes protruded from Tommy’s shaven head. The doctors had inserted catheters into the ventricles of the brain, where the cerebrospinal fluid was held. The catheters monitored the pressure in the brain and relieved it by draining excess fluid.

As soon as Donna could, she planted herself next to Tommy’s bedside. She refused to go home and rest despite the insistence of the nurses. She preferred to sit beside Tommy and hold his hand. Once, after she had just returned to the hospital, one of the nurses told her to bring socks for Tommy when next she came from home because his feet were getting cold. Instead, Donna whipped off her fresh black socks and put them on her son. For the rest of his time at the hospital, Tommy wore Donna’s black socks.
While Donna obviously was heartbroken, she still heard what the doctors tried to explain Tommy’s prognosis. She understood and did not deny the gravity of the situation. Donna’s religion gave her comfort and prevented her from being inconsolable. What most stood out to Nurse Nora was Donna’s calm, beautiful spirit. Both being Christians, the two bonded. Both being mothers, they formed a strong friendship.

Everyone who came to visit Tommy tried to remain hopeful. Family and friends held onto the fact that Tommy looked as if he were merely resting. He lay there on his bed unblemished. Tommy had no broken bones, no visible bruises, no scratches or bleeding. On the upper part of his forehead, the doctors had placed a small Band Aid. But other than that, Tommy seemed to be the same boy whom Donna put to bed every night.

For the first few days, doctors did not have a definite answer about Tommy’s fate. Donna felt exhausted from the constant changes in Tommy’s condition. One day doctors would say things were hopeful, then follow with a more negative message. Tommy’s health, all the while, slowly declined as the doctors were unable to control the inflammation in his brain. When Tommy’s brain started to swell, the ventricles collapsed and the pressure within his skull increased. As the intercranial pressure intensified, it pushed the brain stem down into the spinal column.

On the fifth day, June 11, 1997 the Pediatrics ICU specialist and Nurse Nora pulled Donna and her ex-husband Peter from their son’s bedside to a corner of the ICU. The doctors explained that they had conducted a series of tests to determine if Tommy were brain-dead. In California, two doctors needed to independently declare a patient brain-dead before giving the final diagnosis. Using the apnea test, they evaluated Tommy’s ability to breathe on his own – something, as it turned out, he could not do. Tommy’s physician had to help Donna and Peter understand that despite Tommy’s hands still being warm, and despite his chest still going up and down, he legally was no longer alive. For Tommy, basic, rudimentary functions and reflexes had become nonexistent. He could no longer instinctively close his eyes to protect them from objects in the air. He could no longer start coughing and choking if food went down the trachea rather than the esophagus.

Upon hearing the diagnosis of Tommy’s brain death, Donna headed to the waiting room and told her supporters that instead of asking for Tommy to get better, they needed to change their prayers. They needed to pray that God would take him.

Only one percent of people who die at a hospital can donate their organs because an organ donor must be free of all infections. Most people die from infections, cancer, or organ failure, preventing them from being potential donors. People who die of brain death fall under that one percent that can donate their organs and tissues. As soon as doctors declare someone brain-dead, the hospital, by federal law, must notify the regional organ procurement agency. In 1997, in Orange County, that agency was SCOPC (Southern California Organ Procurement Center). (It has since then become OneLegacy.) Once SCOPC’s headquarters received the phone call from Mission Hospital about Tommy’s being brain dead, it dispatched a family specialist coordinator. The coordinator’s sole job was to invite Tommy’s parents to consider offering their son as an organ donor.

The family specialist coordinator approached Donna and Peter as they sat with Tommy in his hospital room, holding his hands. Once in a private office, the coordinator told Donna and Peter that they would “always have a Tommy-shaped void in [their] hearts.” Donna had never thought of her son as a potential organ donor. She had considered it for herself, but never for her children, never for Tommy. If Tommy was dead, then Donna only wanted to preserve his image. She didn’t want anyone to dissect him. Couldn’t he just be left alone?

Peter thought differently. He told Donna: “If someone were to come along and donate an organ to Tommy if he had needed it to survive, we would have been most appreciative.” Both parents had to sign the consent form. Both Donna and Peter had to accept that Tommy no longer remained in his body. If he survived and came out of his coma, it would not be the same Tommy that they’d been crying over for five days. It would not be the same Tommy whose life’s ambition was to meet the lead singers of Sublime, Blink-182, and Social Distortion. It would not be the same Tommy who loved hockey, surfing, and skateboarding. Peter’s unselfish attitude convinced Donna – but she had one condition: Tommy’s eyes. Donna did not want anyone else having his honey-brown eyes. Those would be buried with Tommy.

There was only a small window of time. If no hospital in the area claimed one of Tommy’s organs for a patient by the end of June 12, then Mission Hospital would pull the life support. SCOPC now took over the costs of keeping Tommy on the artificial respirator. Much was at stake. A donor can potentially save eight lives: providing a heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas, spleen, small intestine, and large intestine. SCOPC’s procurement transplant coordinator needed to quickly find suitable recipients for Tommy’s organs. She started looking at the list of patients waiting for organs. Those sickest and closest to Orange County had the best chances of receiving one of Tommy’s organs. Little did the coordinator know that an outside force had already decided where one of Tommy Weiss’s organs would go.

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