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Organ recipient befriends his donor’s family

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Ken Howard hugs his friend Jeri' Williams. Howard received a liver and kidney from Williams' son in 2012.

Trenton Williams, 24, a graduate of Lamar High School in 2006, had big, blue eyes and a warm smile. His mother, Jeri’ Williams, remembers him being trustworthy and loyal.

The youngest of four siblings, he was a smart and meticulous planner who worked hard, she said. He was successful at his job at XTO Energy; he bought a house when he was 18. By 24, he had built a new one with his own hands in Hagarville, a community in Johnson County.

Trenton Williams had been living there for nine months when he went to a pool party Aug. 11, 2012.

Jeri’ Williams was in Tulsa that day visiting grandchildren and preparing for a trip to the zoo. A phone call from Arkansas had just enough details for her to immediately change plans and head back home.

“They said there had been an accident and that they were doing CPR on Trenton. That’s all they told us.”

Williams later learned that Trenton had been thrown into the pool head first and had a severe neck injury. When she arrived at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, doctors told her to prepare herself. There was not a lot they could do. A scan showed there was no brain activity.

“I wasn’t willing to accept that first scan,” she said. “Of course, as a mother, you’re never going to accept something that horrible until you know for sure there is no other option.”

A second scan revealed the same results: no brain activity.

A representative from Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency (ARORA) met with Williams in the hospital and showed an enlarged copy of her son’s driver’s license. He had signed up to be an organ donor. It’s not something they’d ever talked about together.

“I know Trenton. He was the kind of person who made decisions based off every piece of information he could get,” Williams said. “He didn’t haphazardly decided to be an organ donor. I knew that if he’d signed up for that, it was truly his wishes.”

For the next several hours, Williams’ family said their goodbyes to Trenton and prayed for the recipients of his organs.

“I prayed they’d be grateful, that they’d realize they were getting a special gift from an amazing person,” Williams said. “I knew whoever received his organs were also hoping for a miracle just as we were.”

Williams left the hospital knowing three people had received organs from her son. One received his liver and a kidney, another his heart, and a third received his other kidney.

Ken Howard has been in law enforcement for more than 40 years. He’s now the Cedarville Police Chief. When he’s not working, he’s spending time with his wife, Linda, playing with his five grandchildren or sharpening his photography skills.

In 2009, the normally healthy Crawford County man says he hadn’t been feeling well for a while. An MRI showed him to have a liver disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and cancer on his kidney.

“They told me I would need a liver and kidney transplant. But I couldn’t be put on a waiting list until I’d been cancer free for a while,” Howard said.

After his cancer was successfully treated, Howard got on the list in May 2012. He received a call three months later.

When Trenton Williams’ family decided to donate his organs, the transplant team at UAMS got to work.

Joy Cope, UAMS Director of Transplant Services, says a large, multidisciplinary team is necessary to make sure everything runs smoothly. Social workers, dietitians, pharmacists, psychiatrists, physicians and nurses all come together to communicate as one.

“We do everything we can to make sure the gift we’re given is received, honored and cared for in the best possible way,” Cope said.

Howard felt compelled to write a letter to his donor’s family. For Jeri’ Williams, that letter couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We had been going through the motions, trying to get ready and live life without Trenton,” Williams said. “The day I went back to work was particularly bad. I woke up crying. I cried all the way to the post office. Inside the box was a letter from ARORA.”

Howard had written about his family and how grateful he was to be able to spend more time with his two children and grandchildren.

“That was exactly what I’d prayed for. I feel like that letter put us on the path to healing.”

The families met and have been close friends ever since. Williams says it brings her joy to watch him live.

“We’re grateful that he’s enjoying his life to the fullest.”

“I cannot say enough about this family,” Howard said. “They have become an extended family to us.”

In 2017, the families were a part of the Donate Life Float in the Rose Bowl Parade. Howard was on the float as a recipient. Trenton Williams was one of 60 donors who had a featured floragraph, a portrait made of flowers, seeds and floral materials.

Cope says she hopes stories like Howard’s will make more people consider the impact of organ donation. There were 109 transplants in 2017, about 53 percent of those eligible.

“We get to see people like Mr. Howard every day,” Cope said. “It’s amazing to watch how much a new organ can change a life. We take the sickest people and get to make them better. There aren’t a lot of people who get to say they do that every day.”

Since her son’s death, Williams has become an advocate for organ donation. She developed an organization called Trenton’s Legacy.

“Through this organization, we have been able to help other people. Trenton’s Legacy steps in to help grieving families in a number of ways,” Williams said. “Even in our brokenness, we have been able to make other lives whole again. What more could you leave for someone? We don’t have Trenton, but his legacy will always be here.”

For more information about the liver and kidney transplant programs at UAMS, visit UAMShealth.com/Transplant

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