On the unseasonably warm morning of Jan. 14, what would have been Don Burkhart’s 70th birthday, his presence was as strong as ever in his old Olalla home.
His denim coat hung behind the front door, and his flat cap sat in its usual place atop the living room hutch.
A dozen red roses adorned the kitchen table. They were a gift his widow, Judy, gave herself five days earlier for what would have been their 49th wedding anniversary, because that’s what Don always did.
And, on the couch beside Judy, sat Karen Saxon, a new friend who lives because Don died.
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Burkhart severed his spinal cord Jan. 26, 2011, in a skiing accident at Crystal Mountain. A day later, paralyzed and unable to talk, he blinked his answer to a question that would change the lives of seven people.
Do you want to be an organ donor?
“It’s nice to know that he lives on and not just here,” Judy Burkhart said as she placed a hand over her heart.
She still mourns her husband’s death, but also marvels at the good that came from the tragedy.
Deeply religious, she says the story seems choreographed.
“It’s like a story that can’t be true,” she said.
Burkhart’s accident happened in one of the most unlikely places: an intermediate run at Crystal Mountain known as Mr. Magoo.
Her husband “was like poetry in motion” on skis and had skied the run hundreds of times,” Judy Burkhart said. Safety was always a priority for him. He always wore a helmet. He never did jumps.
On the morning of the accident, he carpooled to the mountain with three friends while Judy took the Wednesday ski bus with their then-7-year-old granddaughter, Corrie Roedder.
He had bought Corrie’s ski gear and loved teaching her and Bryan, his grandson.
“It was always a given,” Judy Burkhart said. “The grandchildren were going to ski. And they loved it.”
About an hour before the accident, she recorded a short video of her husband and Corrie skiing together on the beginner slope. Afterward, Judy and Corrie took a 10-minute break, and Burkhart set off on his final run.
A ski patroller happened to be behind Burkhart as he swept down Mr. Magoo, steering clear of Crystal Mountain’s new terrain park. Passing lift pole No. 10, he glanced up, presumably looking for his friends. He didn’t see a small, unmarked jump near the edge of the run.
He flew about 15 feet in the air and landed face first.
Ski area officials say the ski patroller was at Burkhart’s side almost immediately and was performing CPR within seconds. Minutes later, a doctor who volunteered with the ski patrol was on the scene.
Burkhart was loaded onto a toboggan and taken down the hill while the doctor lay on top of him so she could breathe for him.
His friends saw the rescuers but assumed it was a drill. Judy and Corrie skied down the beginner route, Queen’s Run, missing the rescue scene. But during the ride back up on the chair lift, Corrie was excited to see a helicopter fly overhead.
Judy knew better.
“Corrie,” she said, “we need to say a little prayer.”
Chuck Peterson, one of Burkhart’s closest friends, was the first to see a note printed on the ski lift message board: “Will the friends of Don Burkhart please contact the ski patrol.”
Burkhart was on his way to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. By noon, Peterson had relayed the message to Judy, and they were scrambling to get to the hospital.
The 21/2-hour ride home was eventful. The road was briefly blocked by elk. And Judy received a call informing her that her daughter, Leslie Roedder, had given surgeons permission to operate.
By 6 p.m., Judy had stopped by home, barely made the Bremerton-Seattle ferry and then ran nine blocks uphill to be at her husband’s side.
When she arrived, he was on life support and doctors confirmed her worst fear.
“They said, ‘There’s no hope.’”
His brain was not injured. But he couldn’t talk, so he blinked messages in Morse code.
Nobody in the room knew Morse code, so eventually they started communicating by having him direct them to letters on a printout of a computer keyboard.
The next morning he used this method to spell “T-U-R-N O-F-F …”
“Turn off life support?” Judy asked.
He blinked, “Yes.”
Judy notified the nurse, who was particularly in tune with the Burkharts’ situation. A year before, the nurse’s dad had died in a skiing accident in Alaska. So he had a few extra questions. Could Burkhart wait just a little longer for friends and family who were coming from as far away as Hawaii to say goodbye?
He blinked yes.
Then the nurse told Burkhart that his driver’s license indicated he was not an organ donor. In fact, this was something Burkhart and Judy had never discussed.
“Do you want to be an organ donor?” the nurse asked.
One more time, he blinked “Yes.”
Moments later, the phone rang at Karen Saxon’s Puyallup home.
The then-66-year-old was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1989. The disease forced her to retire early in 2006 from her position as a science program manager in the Puyallup School District.
Her mother died of cancer, and Saxon believes she had undiagnosed kidney disease. Her sister, Kathryn Willard, also had kidney disease and had a transplant three weeks after Saxon.
Before Burkhart’s accident, Saxon was wondering how much time she had left.
“I’d calculated whether or not I would get to see my granddaughter graduate from high school,” she said of Elise Vanderlinda, now a 16-year-old junior at Emerald Ridge High. “I just didn’t know.”
But after three years of waiting, Saxon suddenly had options.
The first one didn’t work. When the kidney was removed from the donor, it showed signs of cancer.
“I instantly went into grief mode,” Saxon said. “And not for me. I felt sad for the family of the donor. When somebody you love dies, you hope their body can help somebody else live. To learn they’re not viable, it’s like two griefs.”
The next option was a good match, but the donor had a history of medical problems that indicated Saxon would outlive this kidney as well.
Option 3 was Burkhart’s kidney, pristine and still young thanks to an active and healthy life.
On the afternoon of Jan. 28, 2011, the Burkhart family gathered around him and turned off the life support.
As the machines stopped, Judy cradled her husband’s face in her hands and looked into his eyes. Their wedding day, a miscarriage, the births of their two daughters and this moment are the ones when she felt closest to him.
She asked if she should turn the machines back on.
“I told him, if he wanted, we could get through this,” Judy said.
He blinked, “No.”
By sunset, he was gone. Before dawn, Saxon was in surgery.
Saxon was one of seven people whose lives changed because of Don Burkhart.
Judy doesn’t know the details of all the stories. Donor and recipient must agree before most information can be exchanged.
Saxon and a woman in Spokane each received one of Burkhart’s kidneys.
A person in Wisconsin, home of Burkhart’s beloved Green Bay Packers, received his liver.
Two people in Africa got his corneas.
“Don always wanted to see other parts of the world,” Judy said.
A burn victim received his skin.
And his bones were used to reconstruct the chest of a Juneau man crushed in a logging accident.
“In seven situations, his body has enhanced somebody’s life,” Judy said. “… Don is the type of guy who would drop everything at any time to help somebody. That would mean so much to him.”
Living the last three years without her husband hasn’t been easy.
“God held me up,” Judy said. “Otherwise I never would have made it. I gave it all to him.”
She still skis. She was back on the mountain about a month after the accident.
“I feel Don up there,” she said.
And she still puts on his old denim coat when it’s time to walk her dog, Rocky, or feed her daughter’s three miniature ponies, Jack, Blue and Cindy.
Well-intentioned friends sometimes recommend she move on with her life.
“Well, that sounds good on paper,” Judy said. “We skied and hiked all around here, so when I see the mountains and the hills, I think of Don. He was an excellent water skier, so I think of him when I see the lakes. And when I drive along the beach I think of the places where he used to dive.
“Grief is like parenting. There’s no book. It’s as individual as the individuals experiencing it.”
Perhaps this is why some opt not to meet the recipients of the organs donated by their loved ones. But when Judy heard Saxon wanted to meet, she was excited.
When she arrived at the Port Orchard Shari’s restaurant in December, the waitress asked Judy whether she was meeting somebody. Judy said she was there for a reunion.
Saxon and Judy ate sandwiches, soup and pie and shared their stories.
As they talked, Judy was struck by Saxon’s eyes. They reminded her of her husband’s.
A month later, as the new friends sat in Judy’s living room, Saxon was drawn to a photo of Burkhart hanging on the wall.
“He has the kindest eyes,” she said.
“That’s what sold me on him,” Judy said.
Judy takes great joy and comfort in knowing her husband’s kindness lives on.
“That’s so special,” Judy said. “Everybody should have that. … My hope for what comes from this is that everybody, everybody checks the organ donor box on their driver’s license.
“It’s so important.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 firstname.lastname@example.org @AdventureGuys