Fight over organ donation compounds family’s grief
On Aug. 27, the 25-year-old diesel mechanic flipped his 2001 Dodge pickup on a country road 10 miles northeast of his hometown of Moses Lake. With no seatbelt securing him, Trenton was thrown from the vehicle and found by the roadside, with a fractured skull and massive damage to his brain.
Flown to Central Washington Hospital, he lay under a ventilator as doctors checked his responses. No flinching from pressure on the beds of his nails or the floor of his mouth. No contraction of his pupils under bright light. No gag or cough when the back of his throat was probed.
Trenton Wilson was brain dead. On the heels of that terrible news, last Friday his large family learned something else they were unprepared for: He had pledged his organs for donation, and it was time to collect.
The family refused. His mother Dena Cole, his eight siblings and their spouses protested, clinging to hope that his condition might improve. Agents with LifeCenter Northwest, the network that coordinates organ donations in four states including Washington, were up against the clock — by Friday, doctors estimated there was at most 24 to 36 hours left before Trenton’s vital organs would no longer be viable for transplant.
So Central Washington Hospital sued for a judge’s order to remove the family from Trenton’s room, and prevent any interference with the harvest.
“I feel that this is unfair to my son,” a weeping Dena Cole said Friday before Superior Court Judge Lesley Allan. “As close as our family is, the last thing our son would’ve wanted was to put his brothers and sisters and his parents not only through the wreck and the aftermath of that, but not even to be able to take his body home as a whole, so that they could have peace.”
The swift court confrontation threw sudden light on Washington’s organ donation law, which leaves a brain-dead donor’s family with few options. Only the donor can revoke permission to harvest, not his or her relatives.
But Trenton’s family said he never discussed the choice with them. He joined the national registry while applying for his state driver’s license, in 2009, and left no living will or power of attorney that might have superseded his pledge.
“How many 24-year-olds think of that?” asked Erica Wilson, the wife of Trenton’s brother Christopher.
The family had no religious objections to organ donation — indeed, Erica said she and her husband are registered to donate. But they were shocked by how Trenton’s case unfolded.
“It was absolutely not handled well,” she said. “It was, ‘This is what your son wrote down, and therefore everything you know about your son is wrong, because he said this when he got his license, and that’s how it is.”’
In an emailed statement, LifeCenter program development director Megan Clark said her agency is legally obligated to collect the organs and tissues promised by donors. “We understand that the families we interact with are suffering a tremendous loss, and each individual reacts very differently to grief,” she wrote.
Wenatchee lawyer Tom O’Connell, who sought the court order on the hospital’s behalf, said the law and the hospital’s contract with LifeCenter Northwest left no other option. His law partner Bryan Maroney said it appeared to be the first time the hospital has ever gone to court to enforce an organ donor pledge.
Friends from Moses Lake stood by in Trenton’s hospital room while his family attended the emergency court hearing Friday afternoon, just before the Labor Day weekend. Allan arranged for Wenatchee attorney John Brangwin to represent them pro bono.
“They question if he knew the responsibilities of organ donation and what it might be,” Brangwin said of Trenton. “He didn’t even get his first license until he was 20.”
Ultimately, the family accepted that they had no say in Trenton’s surrender of his organs and tissues. The hospital agreed not to remove his eyes or skin for donation, and allowed his relatives 12 hours with the patient before the harvesting process began.
The family sought to keep Trenton’s heart in place, but Allan said the law did not allow her to intervene to that extent. She noted such donations can spare living patients from disease and death.
“Maybe at some point that will bring some comfort — that the last acts Trenton was able to perform were of a giving and generous nature,” Allan said.
Trenton died at 4:45 a.m. Sunday, two days after the court hearing. Erica Wilson said the harvest of his organs went forward prior to his death. His heart, liver, both kidneys and one lung were removed for transplant.
The young mechanic was engaged to be married, and left behind young twin daughters. Erica recalled his lifelong love of animals.
“His dogs were his life. If things would get bad, he would get on the floor and wrestle with his dogs. If he saw a stray, he brought the stray home.”
The experience has left Wilson’s family feeling sour about the organ donation process. Erica feels Trenton was handled more like a commodity than a person; now she and her husband plan to revoke their own donor pledges.
“I feel for anyone who needs an organ transplant,” she said. “I do. But also, if I were in that situation, I wouldn’t want anyone to be treated the way these people are treated. We fight so much over when life begins, but when does life end? Whose call is that?”
Clark and LifeCenter Northwest communications program manager Cate Oliver said their agency offers counseling and family support for donors’ relatives, for a minimum of 18 months after a loved one’s death.
“It’s a very special decision to save a life, to register as an organ donor,” Oliver said, “and the best thing you can do to make sure your loved ones understand the importance of what you’re doing is to have that conversation — to let them know that this is what you want.”
Trenton will be buried Friday in Gridley, Calif., his birthplace and home of his extended family. His fiancee Stephanie Bannon has established a charitable account to help defray costs of his funeral.
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