“It has helped us grieve”; loved ones share the silver lining of organ donation after loss

Local News

SULLIVAN COUNTY, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — Ashley Wilcoxen said her husband, Ryan, was in “the prime of his life.” Then, one Friday in February, he started complaining of a headache.

“He came in the front living room and he said ‘Ashley, my head hurts so bad, there’s so much pressure on the back of my head’,” Ashley recalled.

Ryan was taken to a local hospital, where doctors found a 6-centimeter brain bleed.

“They let me know right away how serious it was,” Ashley said, remembering the tone of the doctors when they arrived at the hospital.

How the Indiana Donor Network is working to help grieving children:

Ryan underwent surgery, which was successful, but an MRI came back with devastating news.

“We could just see that the damage was (to) the entire brain,” Ashley said. “There was no other surgery or intervention that they could do at that point to reverse the damage that had been done.”

The next few days were a blur for Ashley, as she said goodbye to the man she had built a life with. Ryan died on February 25 with Ashley by his side.

Although Ryan was no longer physically with her, Ashley said she talked to him about the next steps, among which was starting the process of organ donation. With Ryan’s spirit guiding her, she made the decision to donate all possible organs and tissue to recipients through the Indiana Donor Network.

“We did everything, because that’s what Ryan would have wanted,” Ashley said.

“It was a silver lining in a horrible, horrible situation,” she added.

***

That silver lining is something Mike Frey can also relate to after losing his son, Cade, to suicide in November 2020.

“We were losing our son, but there were a lot of others that were going into hospitals all over that Thanksgiving Day that were receiving new life,” Mike said, reflecting on the day he took Cade’s body to the hospital to begin the organ donation process.

Cade was one of 252 organ donors who the Indiana Donor Network says gave the gift of life in 2020 – a number that broke a record, despite the pandemic stalling some medical procedures and hospital access.

Mike Frey shares why he is focused on talking to kids about mental health:

Courtney Tillotta, an aftercare support manager for Indiana Donor Network, works with grieving family members like Mike and Ashley on a daily basis to help them understand the process while also respecting their grief.

“We’re really there to walk with them as much as they need us to,” Tillotta said, “Grief is so hard whether somebody is 90 years old, or whether you’re losing a baby who was just born. Our aftercare team and our organization as a whole continues to help these families understand what their loved one gave.”

Ashley said the Indiana Donor Network team was “phenomenal” to work with and gave Ryan the dignity that he deserved while also walking her through that process of understanding.

***

Since Cade’s death, Mike has dedicated a lot of his time to speaking to local schoolchildren about mental health, and also sharing with people the importance of organ donation.

Mike said he understands that some people may not be comfortable with organ donation, but said he’s glad Cade was an organ donor for many reasons, one being that it has helped the family during the mourning process.

“It has helped us grieve, knowing that he has helped others, that he lives on,” Mike said, smiling, “We’ve talked to some of the recipients now, and they’re doing very well. They’re better than they have been in years.”

Ashley Wilcoxen talks about one day meeting the recipients of Ryan’s organs and tissue:

Ashley said she, too, would like to one day speak to some of the people who received Ryan’s organs and tissue.

“I’m hopeful that one day I can meet someone, and tell them about Ryan, and hear about their life.”

To learn more about organ and tissue donation, you can visit the Indiana Donor Network website.

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