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Robert Somerville Jr.

On August 29th, 1996 I received a call no mother wants to receive. The person on the other end of the phone told me that my oldest son Robby had been in an accident. Robby was 16 years old, 6’5” weighing 300 lbs. Given his size, upon moving to a new school the football coach had told him he was playing football for him. Robby’s nickname was “Big Country”. He wanted to join the Navy and follow in my fathers’ footsteps. He was a giant but had a huge heart, the heart of a teddy bear. Robby adored his little sister and fought with his brother like brothers do but there was always love there. They grieved for many years as I did and have spent their entire life promoting donation because they learned by sharing what Robby did it kept him alive in their heads too. My daughter once said to me she was so young when he died her memories were of a 5-year-old, but she has memories are what other people remember about him as well. His brother tattooed his arm in honor of Robby once he was old enough to do it.
On that evening of August 29th Robby had been at a friend’s house. He and his friends were hanging around a car. Robby sat on the trunk of the car while another boy jumped on the front hood. The driver floored it trying to throw the other boy off the front of the car that boy grabbed inside the windshield, Robby had nothing to hold on to. Robby hit his head on the bumper and ground and ended up being airlifted to the University Trauma center.
I don’t remember driving to the hospital and the next few days were quite a blur as well. On the 6th day the doctor called us in and said Robby would never open his eyes again and he would never speak again. I asked the doctor how long he could stay like that, and the doctor replied ""his heart is only 16 years old it – it could beat like that forever"". I asked the doctor what we should do if Robby died and we wanted to donate his organs, the doctor put his hand in my face and said, “I won’t discuss that with you”. After meeting with the doctor, I went to Robby’s nurse and asked her what we needed to do if we wanted to donate, and she told us that if the time came the organ procurement staff would approach us. Later that day Robby was declared brain dead, and we agreed to organ donation. Robby donated his heart (which took longer to place since his heart was so big), liver, both kidneys and pancreas. At the time we said no to eye and tissue donation but if we knew then what we now know about eye and tissue donation we would have acted differently.
I wrote to all of the organ recipients. I heard back from one of the kidney recipients and we became friends and enjoyed getting to know her children and her grandchildren. It turns out that she was a nurse that had worked with my mother years before. Throughout the years I have kept tabs on Robby’s other recipients.
Since Robby’s death, I have consistently worked to assist other donor families following their loved one’s donation and increase public awareness of organ donation. For years I worked with the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network as a donor family advisor and later, before an organized family services department was established, created a paid Family Services Coordinator position which I did for a short time. I wrote policies and guidelines to ensure that donor families were provided assistance following their loved one’s donation. Having felt that my family chose not to donate Robby’s eyes or tissues because insufficient information was provided to us and the segmented approach to eye and tissue donation (as compared to organ donation), I worked on getting all donation entities (the organ procurement organization and the tissue and eye banks) to work together towards the same goal. I have worked all these years supporting donor families and educating people about the truth of donation.
In 2000, I went to my first Transplant Games of America. When the Transplant Games were first established only athletes who were organ recipients were invited to attend and compete. Later there was held a recognition ceremony for donor families but the donor families stayed in a separate hotel from the organ recipients. I observed that there should be more donor families participating in the games and that ideally, they should be integrated with the other transplant team participants, so I worked to change this. I now co-manage Team Finger Lakes, the transplant team.
I recall that at one point early on in my grief I couldn't go on. Then l was asked to speak in front of a group about Robby and his gift of life. When I did this, I saw the whole group listening to me and smiling while crying and it felt good to have them listen. I then started going other places like schools and businesses telling Robby's story. I still do it to this day whenever I can. Twenty-five years later people still listen to me tell his story.
Another donor mom and I started a support group for donor families. We would meet and help new donor families through the tough road they were now on. Now I manage the Donor Family Network as well as co manages Team Finger Lakes, the transplant team. This volunteering has helped me through the last 25 years. Through Robby’s organ donation I have met so many people I never would have met otherwise. I feel that doing all of this work gives me an opportunity to talk about Robby and others the ability to listen and tell not just their own story of death but their stories of life as well. I have learned that "In helping others I help myself".

Robert Somerville Jr.
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