After tragic death, Soldotna man gives life through organ donation

There’s a scene that William Dooley remembers about his son Jeremy as a child. On a family visit to the Detroit Zoo, a luminous blue butterfly landed on the boy’s nose. Because they weren’t supposed to touch the butterflies, he waited patiently for the creature to fly off. And waited. And waited.

 

Today, that boy is gone. But even after his death, Jeremy gave hope to five others with a final gift.

In early 2016, after Jeremy died at Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, doctors worked with LifeCenter Northwest to recover his kidneys, pancreas, liver and heart and transported them to the Pacific Northwest, where they were given to five patients. One of those patients was from Soldotna.

“(Jeremy) had five organs donated — both kidneys, pancreas, liver and heart. (Four of those organs) saved the lives of four patients in the Northwest,” said Rick Davis, Central Peninsula Hospital’s CEO, in a presentation to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Nov. 21. “We were proud to have that honor.”

Remembering Jeremy

Jeremy died on Jan. 15, 2016, when he was 23. William Dooley remembers police officers knocking on his door the night Jeremy was in the hospital. He talked to them just long enough to find out that Jeremy was in trouble before rushing there.

“I didn’t really talk to the cops — I’m sure they wanted to have a conversation, but once I heard (Jeremy was in the hospital) I didn’t even talk with them,” he said. “Once I heard that he’s not doing good, I’m out.”

Further police investigation determined it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The family had no warning that Jeremy would attempt suicide. Only hours earlier, when William had talked to his son, he sounded normal. Jeremy’s sister, who was out shopping with him and her son, said Jeremy was playing with his nephew, the way he always had.

Jeremy was born at Central Peninsula Hospital in April 1992. He lived his entire life in Soldotna, attending the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools and earning honor roll grades throughout. He wrestled for Soldotna High School while still acing his classes, a fact his father is proud of. Even after high school, while he attended Kenai Peninsula College, he flew through his classes with top marks.

“He was a happy-go-lucky kid,” William said. “He was into science … his nickname was ‘Buggy.’ He could pick up bumblebees and never get stung.”

Jeremy taught himself to play guitar and could play the whole Metallica catalog. He adopted a dog and took her driving in his car. He loved Star Wars, Lego sets and Harry Potter. The urn his family eventually picked out for him is shaped like a Harry Potter book, his father said.

Self-driven and smart, Jeremy loved computers. He earned tough technical certifications by age 19 and eventually worked in the computer lab at Kenai Peninsula College, then at the Challenger Learning Center. He learned quickly, too — William remembers a time he had to fix a car but knew nothing about mechanics, and learned quickly enough from someone else that he managed to fix the problem himself in short order.

He had a big heart, too, William said.

“He was friends with everybody,” he said. “He didn’t care if you were gay, trans, down on your luck. He’d give you the shirt off his back … he didn’t care who you were.”

About 400 people came to the memorial service held by the family at Soldotna High School in February 2016, including elementary school teachers, hockey coaches, friends and coworkers. One of his roommates came to the hospital to say goodbye the night Jeremy was dying. Community members brought food to the family’s house after he died, and friends set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for the funeral expenses.

His death fell heavily on the family, many of whom live in the Soldotna area. They are close and talk frequently, but even two years later, the loss is still hard to talk about, William said.

“It’s still going on today. We still miss him,” he said. “We all said a prayer for him at Thanksgiving. He’d have been 25.”

The gift of life

Jeremy had checked the organ donor box on his driver’s license, and his family followed through with his wishes. Four days passed at Central Peninsula Hospital before Jeremy died — four of the hardest days William remembers.

Central Peninsula Hospital worked with LifeCenter Northwest, a federally designated organ donation nonprofit based in Seattle that serves Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Washington. The organization provides support for donors’ families, works with hospitals before and during a donation and transports the organs to the locations where they’ll be transplanted.

“LifeCenter Northwest recognized (the hospital’s work in this case) … and they came up and presented us with an award and a presentation,” Davis told the assembly Nov. 21. “Their phrasing was that the outcome was very amazing. The family was very happy with the way this ended up, considering.”

When it became clear Jeremy wouldn’t make it, the hospital staff evaluated whether he would be eligible for organ donation. With that determination, they contacted LifeCenter Northwest, which sent a clinical team to the hospital to conduct the organ recovery and a grief team to work with the family through the process and for 18 months afterward. Family support is key in the organization’s mission, said LifeCenter Northwest communications program manager Cate Oliver.

“We want to make sure that they’re completely comforted and cared for during this time,” she said. “… Sometimes that does impact the recovery time, the (operating room) time. It does happen. But we really want to make sure that family knows exactly what’s happening and have all their questions (answered and know) what’s happening when any recovery takes place. And also make sure they know exactly what donation means.”

After the surgeons remove the organs, the clock starts ticking. Doctors have small windows of time when an organ is viable to be transplanted after it is removed from the body, and this brief window varies by organ. Kidneys are safe for up to about 36 hours on ice, while hearts can only last about four to six hours, Oliver said.

In Alaska, that’s a tight schedule, because the nearest transplant center is in Seattle, at least a three-hour flight away. Some technologies are working to extend the lives of organs — pumps to lengthen the viability of kidney are relatively common — but many are still experimental so it’s still a challenge donors in Alaska and Hawaii face, Oliver said. For example, to transplant Jeremy’s heart, doctors had to recover it, store it, jump on a plane, get it to Seattle and into the transplant recipient’s chest within four to six hours. LifeCenter Northwest works closely with transportation companies, including Alaska Airlines, to make sure donor organs get to the transplant centers as fast as possible, Oliver said.

The coordination worked: Jeremy’s donated organs made it safely to the Northwest, where they were successfully transplanted.

Alaska has the second-highest rate of registered organ donors in the country, Oliver said. Organ donation registration is legally binding, but with a next-of-kin approval, even unregistered people can donate if they’re eligible. But it can still be hard for families who have just lost a loved one to process it, so LifeCenter Northwest encourages people to talk about it ahead of time so everyone is on the same page, Oliver said.

“This isn’t something people talk about,” she said. “But we encourage people just to educate themselves about the process, and let your family and loved ones know your wishes. Even if you don’t want to be a donor. In those rare instances in which a donation is possible, it’s a peace of mind for the family.”

William said the hospital staff was wonderful to the family throughout the process and they were happy to honor his son’s wishes.

The memories remain. The Dooleys adopted the dog Jeremy left behind, a pit bull/boxer mix. She still likes to ride in the car, the way Jeremy used to take her as a puppy. She’s the one thing they have left of him, William said. The family also has a new grandson now — Lincoln Alexander, born just a few months ago. He shares a middle name with Jeremy.

William said he sometimes thinks he sees Jeremy around town. He’ll do a doubletake before moving on.

“I still think I’m going to walk into him, every day,” he said. “I saw some kid a couple of weeks ago, had to walk away — I started tearing up. It wasn’t him.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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