The gift of hope

The gift of hope

HOMER — On the really tough days, Lauri Umbarger looks for comfort outside. Especially on May 6, the day her son Brandon came into the world in a hurry, a towhead with an infectious grin who loved nothing more than hanging at home with his family.

And maybe on Mother's Day, which the Umbargers celebrate by planting flowers or going out to lunch, with an empty space at the table.

And Memorial Day weekend, when their world changed forever three years ago on a country road a quarter mile from the family home.

Lauri sits by the pond they built out back as a tribute to Brandon, to reflect and think about her son — about how much she still misses him, about the outdoors he loved, about the way he made her laugh, about his big heart.

She thinks about the four lives he saved, and it brings her peace.

***

It was late on May 25, 2012, when Brandon Umbarger's car went over the crest of a hill, skidded out of control and landed on a grass-covered embankment.

The 17-year-old was supposed to be home from a friend's house by 11 p.m. Lauri woke up right at 11 and knew something wasn't right. She started calling. Her husband David went out, tracing Brandon's likely route. He found him, still alive.

The ambulance rushed Brandon to the hospital. But Brandon's head injuries were too severe, and doctors said there was no hope.

A few hours later a woman approached the Umbargers, asking for the ultimate gift: a part of their son to help others live.

Lauri's immediate response was yes. The word just wanted to fly out of her mouth. But David wasn't so sure. Devastated by grief and shock, he needed time.

Eventually, they agreed it was what Brandon would have wanted. What a tribute, his mom said, if he could help others live. And he could live on.

"We knew it was the right thing to do," she says. "As hard as it was on us, it felt right."

They waited, two long days, for transplant teams from three states to arrive, staying by Brandon's side. Lauri wasn't about to leave him alone.

So many friends and relatives and teenagers gathered at Carle that the staff had to open more waiting rooms.

Finally, the surgeon came out and told the Umbargers that everything had gone well. And he said he'd never seen a heart like Brandon's — big and healthy, "the most perfect heart he'd ever seen."

Lauri wasn't surprised. That was Brandon.

***

She closes her eyes as she thinks about her younger son, searching for just the right words. Quiet but fun, a thinker, always able to make her laugh just by saying "Oh, Mom."

"He was just ... I call him a homebody," she says, the opposite of older brother Nicholas. "He loved to hang out with Mom, hang around here."

She remembers her first glimpse of his tiny heartbeat on the fetal monitor, and the day he was born 20 years ago. Sitting in a recliner as 2 1/2-year-old Nicholas watched cartoons, she started timing her contractions and knew this was it. She called her husband and went to the hospital around 12:30 p.m. Brandon arrived just five hours later, beating the doctor by a few minutes.

"He was coming to the party," Lauri says.

She was home by the next afternoon, sitting in the same recliner with her new son, thinking "Wow. I was just here yesterday. This is crazy."

She chose to stay home with her boys after Brandon was born, a decision she is immensely grateful for now.

At school "Umby" was an award-winning athlete, playing football, baseball and basketball. The pin Lauri wore to his visitation, where 900 people filled Heritage High School's hallways, was a photo of 10-year-old Brandon in his pee-wee football uniform.

He loved to hunt with his older brother or his dad on the property behind their house.

Brandon got good grades but was never keen on school, asking his mom in second grade, "I just want to know why I have to go to school," and later, "I would really like school if I could take my bed."

Rather than college, he thought about the Coast Guard (he could serve in Alaska and hunt), and then the Air Force, inspired by his grandfather and a family friend. He even reached out to local recruiters during his junior year, telling his mom, "That's what I want to do."

That willingness to serve played in Lauri's mind when the family was deciding whether to donate Brandon's organs.

"I just knew my son, the giving person he was, about to serve his country — I knew he would want to do that."

***

In the early days after Brandon's accident, Lauri's faith in God helped her survive.

"That's what got me out of bed every day, along with my other son," she says.

She'd hear a sermon in church or read a Bible passage or hear a song and know the message was just for her. God was always there.

For the first year Lauri and David channeled their grief into what would have been their son's senior year. They went to every basketball game, surrounded by his classmates and parents wearing the green "Donate Life" bands from Gift of Hope, in Brandon's memory. Lauri and David and Nicholas have never taken theirs off.

Brandon's classmates sponsored a run after he died, each one wearing T-shirts with his name and an outline of the last deer he bagged. They made wristbands with his initials and the words, "Hunt in heaven."

At graduation, a fellow student presented Brandon's tearful parents with roses, and the Class of 2013 donated a stone in his memory. It reads: "Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; Love leaves a memory no one can steal."

People would ask how the Umbargers could keep coming back; Lauri said it was healing. "He would be here."

Then came June. The school year ended, the activities stopped, and their built-in support was gone. She remembers thinking, Now what?

"I had a complete meltdown," Lauri says. "It was rough for a few months."

But others reached out, especially moms. Kids still came by. Lauri and David went back to basketball games and still saw people wearing the Gift of Hope bands.

And people have shared stories and photos, like the one of him making a catch in left field at Busch Stadium in St. Louis last summer, where his team got to play before a Cardinals game. Brandon was on "Cloud 9000."

One letter sticks out in her mind, from a mom who moved to Homer during her son's freshman year. He joined the football team, and one day the squad went on a 5K run. Her son was a slow runner, and didn't know anybody, but pretty soon there was Brandon, in the back of the pack beside the new kid, running with him the whole way.

Lauri had asked Brandon about the run, and he'd just shrugged and said it was fine.

"That's just who Brandon was," his mom says. "He touched so many people even in his short 17 years."

***

Nothing's changed much in Brandon's room since the day he died. Lauri's not ready. The door remains closed, mostly to keep the cat away from all the collages and scrapbooks and mementoes people have given them. Brandon's shoes still sit in the garage. There's no time frame on healing.

But three years in, it's getting easier. Lauri even took two trips last fall in honor of her 50th, to Hawaii with her mom, to Mexico with her husband.

She still has moments. She saw a commercial with a towheaded 4-year-old boy recently and burst into tears.

But there's more time in between those moments; instead of crying every second, there's space.

Earlier this year, Lauri decided she was ready to do something to help Gift of Hope. April is Donate Life Month, so she placed ads in two community newspapers, encouraging others to "give the gift of life" as Brandon and, tragically, another Heritage student had.

She called Gift of Hope in Itasca, asking if she could help out at its booth at the Illinois Marathon. There, strangers came up and said, "Can I hug you? I'm a recipient."

Then a former classmate of Brandon's contacted her about a "Tree of Life" Carle had created to honor organ donors, and asked if she could put Brandon's name on it. Carle asked her to speak at the public unveiling. A donor recipient spoke at the event, too, and came up afterward to thank her.

"When you hear that, how can you not be a donor?" she asks.

Last year, more than 300 people in Illinois died because of a shortage of donor tissue or organs, she says.

Lauri hopes her story will help others sign up, and encourage parents to talk to their kids about it so they won't have to go through the agonizing decision that her family did.

"It's not the normal circle of life, but it can happen," she says. "God led me here."

***

About a year after Brandon's death, the Umbargers got a letter from Gift of Hope.

Inside was a plain white envelope with another letter, which they could choose to read or not. It was from the 12-year-old girl who had received Brandon's liver.

Lauri made David read it first. When she finally did, all she did was cry.

The girl had been struggling to survive before the transplant; the Make a Wish Foundation wasn't sure she'd get to live to enjoy her wish: to surf in Hawaii. But her mom sent photos from before and after the transplant — "night and day," Lauri says — including one of the girl, healthy and hearty, in Hawaii.

A few months later they got a second letter, from a 42-year-old man who now had Brandon's kidney. He'd had a matter of days to live before his transplant, unable to find a suitable donor. Brandon was a perfect match.

Brandon donated four organs in all — both kidneys, his liver, and his big heart.

Lauri clings to that, never feeling sorry for herself because four people are now able to live because of her son.

The Umbargers want them to know more about him. So a few weeks ago they wrote their own letter, via Gift of Hope, enclosing his junior year photo. David wrote most of it; Lauri couldn't bring herself to do it. Now they're waiting.

Lauri wants to meet them all someday, the people Brandon is a part of, the people he saved. Especially the man who has Brandon's heart.

She wants to give him a hug and, most of all, listen to his heartbeat.

"Brandon was just so giving and loving. His heart was just so big. I want to hear it again and know his heart is helping that man live and continue his life."

10 things to know about organ donation

  • To become an organ donor: Join the registry through your driver's facility or online through donatelifeillinois.org or at hospitals4hope.org/Carle.
  • Nationwide, 123,000 people are waiting for an organ, and 21 people will die each day waiting for one, according to organdonor.gov.
  • One donor can save up to eight lives.
  • Anyone can donate, regardless of age, race or gender.
  • Families often haven't had the conversation because "you never think it's going to happen to you," says Amy Bandy, Carle Hospital's director of nursing and liaison to the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network. Knowing a person's wishes makes it much easier on everyone involved, she said.
  • Locally, donations are growing, thanks to public education and awareness. Carle had 23 organs donated in 2014, a number the hospital has already hit this year.
  • A multidisciplinary team at Carle works to promote organ donation and provide support for families.
  • Carle's new "Tree of Life" honors those who gave the gift of life through organ and tissue donation. It was funded by the Women's Legacy Circle at Carle's Center for Philanthropy.
  • Carle flies "Donate Life" flags for three days outside the hospital while an organ or tissue donation is under way. The flag is given to the donor's family.
  • The "Kyle Shines On" foundation in Chicago provides blankets given to each donor family reading, "Forever in our hearts."
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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on May 11, 2015 at 4:05 am
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I'd like to tell the Umbargers something about their journey.

The name "Tim Battershell" appears only in a photo caption for this story. But I spotted it.

I figured there aren't many Tim Battershells in the area. I Googled "Tim Battershell."

Sure enough, the hits I got told me that their Tim Battershell is the same guy I knew in the 1990s. He seems to have lost two-thirds of his body weight, but he needed to lose a third anyhow.  

Now he just needs to regain that other third.

Anyhow, point is, Tim Battershell was one of the nicest people I ever met. Super friendly. Optimistic. Funny. Good tipper (I was in college = this was important). I can honestly say that he's a person people talked about, behind his back, in a good way. (I'm not making this up. We looked up to Tim.)

I am so sorry the Umbargers lost Brandon. I am thrilled that they returned Tim to the world. Brandon is doing good work to this day.