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As a football coach, he inspired many. As an organ donor, he gave new life to others

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 8/8/2017
Kari Driskell encourages everyone to register as an organ donor. When her husband, Blue Valley head football coach Eric Driskell, died earlier this year he was registered, which made the decision easy for the family. She holds one of the medals from the Midwest Transplant Network that she and other family members received following the donation. © Keith Myers/Kansas City Star/TNS Kari Driskell encourages everyone to register as an organ donor. When her husband, Blue Valley head football coach Eric Driskell, died earlier this year he was registered, which made the decision easy for the family. She holds one of the medals from the Midwest Transplant Network that she and other family members received following the donation.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Early in their marriage of nearly 15 years, Eric and Kari Driskell casually spoke about organ donation — the one and only time, as far as she remembers.

"I don't even know why it came up," she said. "But I knew he was a donor, he knew I was a donor."

And that was that toward one matter apparently in their distant future.

"'OK, good, we're doing the right things. Yay, move on with our lives,'" she thought then. "We were young. We didn't worry about it.

"We're still young. And we didn't worry about it."

In the fog and numbness that left her feeling like a zombie following Eric's abrupt death in February from a ruptured brain aneurysm, that seemingly subtle gesture of years before became infinitely more profound.

Now it's a purpose and a cause for Kari Driskell, whose husband meant so much to so many as a popular and inspiring football coach and teacher at Blue Valley High.

Knowing what she knows now, she doesn't believe she'll ever stop talking about organ donation.

"When you lose your husband, you can wallow and put the blanket over your head in the corner," she said. "Or you can get up and be sad and take a step forward.

"I mean, nobody wants to go through that. ... That hurt's not ever going to leave. But the story is more important."

So somber as it was to pose for their first family photo without Eric, Kari and young daughters Rachel (12) and Laurel (9) agreed to be photographed for and featured in Midwest Transplant Network's upcoming calendar.

And they've been invited to ride in the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.

Because the story is more important:

Twenty-two people in the United States die every day since the organs they need are not donated in time.

Nearly 120,000 people are currently on the waiting list for transplants — including more than 2,000 Kansans and Missourians.

And only three in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organ donation, a numbers game that makes every registration all the more vital.

"Learning those stats, I was like, 'OK, this is what we're passionate about,'" said Kari Driskell, who spoke movingly at the Kansas City Sports Commission dinner in April. "That's just crazy, unnecessary deaths."

Unnecessary because 95 percent of adults in the U.S. agree with the concept of organ donation ... but only 48 percent are registered as donors (although 68 percent of Kansans and 74 percent of Missourians are).

This is why Kari Driskell asks that you not even wait for the next time your license comes due to sign up.

Do it now, and it's as simple as going to websites https://www.organdonor.gov/index.html or http://www.yestheywantme.com/ to register to make a gift of incalculable meaning.

"All of our recipients say that they just don't even know where to begin, because thank you is not enough," said Brooke Connell, manager of public affairs for Midwest Transplant Network. "You're taking someone who's bedridden, who's not going to leave the hospital, and now ... it's literally completely turned their lives around."

The notion of turning others' lives around helps Kari move forward even as she remains in mourning, and some of what this means in her own life is encapsulated in a letter she received from Midwest Transplant Network about a month after Eric's death.

(The organization, in fact, has become part of her vast support network, particularly because of Lisa Heideman, a family services coordinator she considers nothing less than an angel for her gentle touch and empathy.)

She pulled out the letter the other day and read excerpts, occasionally crying or using one of her affectionate catchphrases, "Damn it, Eric."

"'Both of his corneas were donated for the purpose of transplantation, and one of his corneas is awaiting transplantation,'" she read from the letter. "'It provides a better quality of life by giving the gift of sight.'"

Just as any initial specification of Eric, who died at 43, is most likely along the lines of "a middle-aged man in the Midwest," descriptions of the recipients are generic as a matter of privacy.

"Somebody got a kidney who has been married for one year, you know?" she continued. "Another kidney went to a 65-year-old gentleman from the Midwest."

Eric's liver, she went on, gave "a 58-year-old gentleman from the Midwest a new beginning. He had a disease that required a transplant. He was on the waiting list for four months. He's married and has two adult daughters," and enjoys hiking and reading.

The thumbnail struck her deeply, particularly considering the Driskells have two daughters and that Eric's football jersey number was 58 — a number they see everywhere now.

Beyond those gifts, tissue donation can continue up to five years.

It saddens her that his heart wasn't able to be donated, for reasons she's not sure of.

"Eric had a big heart," she said. "But the possibility of being able to (give) that was there. And he would want that. He would say to do that. So there's that."

In fact, that's a crucial point. As much as anything else, really, this is about the spirit of the decision.

It's about making the right choice to give even if there are infinite reasons you can't know what will be received.

This is about not knowing exactly how you can help ... but doing all you can to do so and closing the gap between vaguely thinking you should do something and actually doing it.

You can see examples everywhere of the impact of each choice to register, whether it's in a recipient you might know or in the influence that might be generated.

For instance, there is this in another of Kari's ongoing communications with Heideman. Through Heideman, Kari learned of a family whose young child had died.

When the family determined to donate, the parents were asked why they had decided to do so.

"'Well, I don't know if you heard of the local coach who died ...'" they told Heideman.

As it happens, Midwest Transplant has heard Eric Driskell's name invoked multiple times in the last six months.

It's tempting for people to suggest to Kari that Eric will live on through being a donor.

There's a certain sort of truth in that, and it's a feeling that can console many donors.

But she is still processing that aspect of Eric's death, just like she naturally still is working through so many things about the husband who was "called" to be a coach and teacher and was wonderful but was also still "just Eric" to her.

"People used to come up to me and be like, 'Your husband's so amazing, yada, yada, yada,'" she said, laughing and adding that she liked to say, "'I pick up his dirty underwear and wash it just like you wash your husband's underwear.'

"He would laugh at that story, too, (and say), 'Do you really have to tell them that?'"

So if you want to know the truth of how she feels right now, emphasis on right now, Eric largely will live on not so much through the recipients of his organs but through his family and friends and those he coached and taught and who loved him.

You could see a snapshot of that in the thousands of signatures on murals of Eric on the family's basement walls.

His persona is well-explained in the recurring themes — "thank you for loving me" and "thank you for making me who I am" and "thanks for believing in me."

This element of his legacy is a dimension unto itself.

"The fact that I can tell my girls that their daddy was a hero to somebody else, because they didn't have to lose a grandpa or an uncle or a brother or a father in an untimely way like we lost Eric, that is comforting," Kari said. "But it's not because a part of Eric is living on in someone else. Because his kidney is not Eric."

It's knowing he gave of himself to help others that matters, reflecting some of his mantras like "We B4 Me" and "Live Like A Champion."

That's also part of why she does not feel consumed with the idea of meeting recipients. Such occasions are more rare than you might realize, Connell said, because of privacy matters and advocates urging caution.

For instance, many recipients want to make sure they're doing well before trying to engage contact beyond a simple thank-you note that goes through the intermediary to the donor family.

Midwest Transplant urges both sides to proceed slowly in any relationship because of such possibilities as an organ not taking and having to contend with a secondary sense of loss.

Just the same, this is one of many ever-evolving emotions for Kari.

"After Eric first died, nobody was allowed to wash his clothing, you know what I mean?" she said. "Nobody could touch piles of Eric's crap everywhere. And that changed.

"And now we're redecorating the house and releasing some of his items. So I say that's how I feel right now, but that could change."

Since Eric already was a registered donor, there was no decision to be made about that in the days after he suffered the aneurysm.

But in consultation with Eric's father, Dave, and his brothers, there was one more resolution they'd have to make: a choice about how to try to help the most people.

"Even on life support, his organs were starting to deplete," she said. "So the longer we'd wait, the less people we could help."

So they thought about whether everyone had had time to say goodbye.

At the same time, as Christians they prayed for a miracle — with some in the family believing there still was a chance if his heart was beating.

"Which is true," Kari said. "But maybe the miracles come in other ways or in different ways. Or it isn't through Eric but through other people because of Eric."

So his last act was to serve as a live donor.

"He did such good. Did good," Kari said, crying. "I just didn't think God would be done with him yet. But miracles come in a different way."

Sometimes even in ways we can all try to provide.

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