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Brave Gift: A Tree of Life 

By Madison Monroe
Brave Editor

Although Aaron Webster and Austin Taylor have never met, they share many things: a ‘morning-always-comes-too-early’ sleep habit, a dare-devil love of sports, a generous and kind spirit and a kidney.

Labor Day weekend 2009 promised to be filled with fun and family. Austin’s mom checked him out of fourth grade early so the family could beat the traffic from Arkadelphia to the Clothesline Fair in Farmington. Each year they made this trip to help man the lemonade and kettle corn booth with Austin’s grandparents. It was a Labor Day family tradition. Austin couldn’t wait to get there because Arkadelphia doesn’t have a Krispy Kreme donut shop and his mouth was already watering for those yummy treats in Farmington.

Not far away another young man named Aaron was home from the University of Arkansas for the long weekend, He too was looking forward to some family time. Friday was set aside to hang out with his sister and brother-in-law. That night he had agreed to babysit his nieces. He always looked forward to spending time with them. Saturday was Dad time. Both were bicycling enthusiasts, so they planned on taking a 40 mile ride together. And Sunday, all of the friends were coming over for wakeboarding. He also couldn’t wait to spend some time with Heather, his fiancée pictured below right with Aaron. They had just become engaged the previous month on Heather’s birthday.

A Bright Future Ahead: Aaron Webster and fiancée, Heather.

The weekend began with a terrible thunderstorm in Northwest Arkansas. It was raining hard and visibility was low. On the way home from babysitting, Aaron pulled toward the side of the narrow, winding road to allow the oncoming car more room to pass. When he did, his tire caught the edge of a culvert and sent his Jeep somersaulting end over end, finally landing upside down. The driver of the car in the other lane immediately stopped, called 911 and returned to help.

The new rescue station had just been built directly across the street, so rescue workers were there within minutes. Cutting the seat belt to release Aaron, the EMT’s got him into the ambulance and headed to the hospital. En route, Aaron stopped breathing. The team resuscitated and intubated him in the ambulance. When he arrived at the hospital, he was critical, but stable.

The phone rang at midnight, waking Aaron’s parents. His mother, Teena, got up to get the phone. Just as she got to it, it stopped ringing. She picked the phone up to check the caller ID and jumped as it rang again in her hand.

“Hello,” she said.
“Are you Aaron Webster’s mother?” asked the voice on the other end of the phone.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Aaron has been in an accident. You need to come to the hospital.”
“Is it bad?”
“Come now. It’s bad.”

Teena’s knees buckled. Shaking uncontrollably, she crawled into the bedroom and woke her husband. Without grabbing her purse or phone, they rushed out of the house and drove to the hospital. On the way there, she readied herself to see her darling son bruised and broken. “It will be ok. It will be ok,” she repeated to herself over and over again.
When they arrived at the hospital, Aaron was in a CT scan. Teena took this as a positive sign. When the family was allowed to see him, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Aaron looked so perfect. Yes, he was intubated, but no cuts, no gashes. Just Aaron. Lying there. Sleeping. She exhaled. It was going to be ok.

The brief moment of solace was shattered when the doctors escorted the Webster’s into the chapel and informed them of the gravity of Aaron’s condition. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury that required immediate surgery. Because of the bad weather, they would be unable to air-vac him to St. Louis. The other closest trauma center with an on-call neurosurgeon was 30 minutes away by ambulance. They needed permission to move him immediately. They had already called ahead to prepare the staff and have the neurosurgeon paged. Right now, time was the enemy. The quicker Aaron received surgery, the better the chances of minimizing long term effects of the accident.

“Why wouldn’t everyone do that , Mom?” Aaron’s innocent question saved 8 lives.

The Webster’s agreed to the transport and phoned the rest of the family, and Heather, on the way to the trauma center. Aaron was admitted at one a.m. The neurosurgeon didn’t make it there until five a.m. Instead of performing life saving surgery, he delivered the devastating news that the window of opportunity had passed and pronounced Aaron brain dead.

During the four hours the family waited on the doctor to arrive, Teena recalled a conversation she had had with Aaron when he was getting his driver’s license four years earlier. Aaron had asked her what ‘organ donor’ meant and she had explained that if anything ever happened to you, they use your organs to help save someone else’s life. “Why wouldn’t everyone do that , Mom?” he asked.

It never occurred to her that day that she would soon be forced into the position of carrying out her child’s final wishes. She had already lost her mother and her sister earlier that year. This was almost too much to process. It had only been a few hours since she had been awakened by the phone call from the hospital, now she was struggling with aligning a mother’s love with a child’s wish. Although pronounced ‘brain dead,’ Aaron looked no different than he had the moment before. Again, time became the enemy.

On Saturday, in the early morning hours, the Webster family was put in contact with the Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency (ARORA)regarding the donation of Aaron’s organs and tissue. Teena didn’t leave Aaron’s side until the daunting task of the cross country coordination of finding recipients for all of his organs was complete. Saturday evening the family gathered around Aaron’s bedside to say goodbye. Through her grief, Teena realized that saying goodbye to her son would be the hardest thing she had ever done.

Only five miles away, Austin Taylor spent Saturday at the fair working his grandparent’s booth. The weather had cleared from the thunderstorms of the previous night making for a beautiful, crisp, clear fall day. There was no shortage of customers, which was fine by Austin. He loved talking to people. After a busy day of popping kettle corn and turning lemons into lemonade, the whole Taylor clan headed to his uncle’s house for dinner and some well-deserved rest. Sunday would be Krispy Kreme day!!!

When morning came, Austin was just too tired from the activities of the day before to go for donuts. His uncle stayed home with him while the other kids went to Krispy Kreme. Everyone knew Austin was getting worse. He usually just pushed through the exhaustion. He had lots of practice at that–he’d been doing it all of his life.

Austin was born with a bladder disease that went undiagnosed for the first year and a half of his life. Every time his mother took him to the pediatrician she would voice her concern over his distended abdomen, only to be told everything was fine and that new mothers worry too much. Finally acting on her intuition, she insisted Austin see a specialist. Tests were run and it was discovered that Austin needed surgery to fix the valves in his bladder. It was too late for his kidneys. For the next six years, Austin’s health declined. He would often be exhausted after school, but always insisted on going to baseball practice. As tired as he was, he was not going to let kidney disease or anything else keep him from the sport he loved.

Now, merely standing in a booth for one day was enough to make him sick. Everyone knew he was getting much, much worse.

A Life Saved: Teena Webster with kidney recipient, Austin Taylor. When Austin (pictured left with Teena, Aaron's mom) and his uncle finally pulled up to the booth that Sunday morning, Austin’s mother was crying. She had just received a phone call telling her that a kidney had become available for Austin. “Although you wait on that call everyday when your child is on the (transplant) list, you are never ready to get it,” recalls Austin’s mother. The rush of emotions was overwhelming. They hurriedly packed up the family and headed to Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. On the front lawn, at the home office of ARORA, the donor flag was raised on the flagpole. At ten p.m. Austin received Aaron’s kidney and two families were joined.

When asked how she had the courage to uphold Aaron’s wishes, Teena replied, “Every life has an end chapter. It is the last memory we have of that person. I couldn’t let the senselessness of an accident be the last thing I would ever remember about Aaron. Being brave enough to honor his wishes makes Aaron’s end chapter heroic; and that was exactly how he lived. We prayed in the hospital for a miracle. Other families were praying for miracles too. We didn’t get ours. But because of Aaron, they got theirs…and in a way that means we got ours, too.”

All eight of Aaron’s organs were successfully transplanted. His tissue has helped over 27 people improve their quality of life through tendon and ligament replacements, bone donation, skin grafts, cornea transplants and spinal fusions.

As a permanent visual reminder that heroic good can grow from senseless tragedy, Teena had a tree of life tattooed on her ankle. It has eight branches, one for each of the lives that Aaron’s organs saved. Around the tree are the words, “Beauty for Ashes, store up your treasures in Heaven.”
A mere two weeks after receiving Aaron’s kidney, Austin was healthy enough to do back flips down the hospital corridor. A few months later, he and his family reached out to Teena in gratitude. The two families have since grown very close.

The past two Labor Day weekends, Teena has joined Austin and the Taylor family at their kettle corn and lemonade booth for the anniversary of Aaron’s death. Understandably, Labor Day weekend is a hard time for her, but she has only to look at Austin to see her son’s living legacy.

BRAVE MEANING: noun: brave | 1.a brave person. | 2.to meet or face courageously:to brave misfortunes. | 3.to defy; challenge | 4.ready to face and endure danger or pain 


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