During Organ Transplant Awareness Month, our FOX 26 Senior Legal Analyst and dear friend Chris Tritico, shares the one bright spot in his family's tragedy from a few months ago in hopes of saving lives.
Tritico is not only a powerhouse in the courtroom, he's also known as a strong family man. Chris is a loving husband to Debbie and proud dad. His daughter, Maria, even helped contribute to our news from time to time and meant everything to this family.
"She always wanted to help other people, to help them make positive choices in their life, just empathy of others. I can't describe how many people she touched. When I think of Maria, I think of love, compassion, life, and enjoyment," describes her loving mom, Debbie.
The Tritico's were busy helping plan Maria's wedding to the love of her life, Chad, when their lives were shattered. They got the devastating news that their darling daughter had gotten caught in the crossfire of rival gangs. They were on the first plane to rush to her hospital room in Florida.
"I looked at Maria and there was a bandage right on her temple, and I knew instantly that she wasn't going to make it from where the bullet went into her temple," says Maria's devastated dad, Chris.
Doctors confirmed nothing medically could be done to save Maria, but she had signed up to be an organ donor. Now, she would be able to save others.
An organ transplant team started putting plans in place.
"He said ‘if you know somebody who needs an organ, if you'll tell me who it is, we'll put them at the top of the list.’ I said, ‘Well, I do know somebody, it's Donna Hawkins,’" explains Chris.
He immediately got on the phone with her husband, Bill, in Houston.
"I said ‘Bill, did Donna get a kidney,’ and he said, 'no.' And I said ‘well, we want her to have our Maria's.’ And he started crying. I started crying. Debbie's crying. I didn't know Donna was sitting right there, she's crying," says Chris.
Donna had been suffering from polycystic kidney disease for decades. Both of her kidneys had each grown larger than a football and the pressure and pain were miserable.
"It got to the point where she had to leave work at the district attorney's office, because there was too much pain and nausea. It had progressed to the point where a really good month was if she could get out of bed and make it to the couch one day a month," explains her husband, Bill.
Chris had actually been encouraging others months before the loss of his daughter to consider being a living donor for Donna. She had been suffering from renal failure, emergency dialysis, and a stroke. Doctors told her a new kidney was her only hope.
"We received a call from Mayo Clinic on Thursday, and I'll never forget the words they used. They said, ‘you and Maria are a perfect match, and we'd like you to fly up here today, and we will do the transplant in the morning.’ So we were in the car at the time and we immediately drove home and called Chris and Debbie, and when we told them that we were a perfect match, all four of us just sobbed. There must have been five minutes of all four of us just crying on the phone, and I remember I kept saying to Chris, ‘I'm so sorry, I am so sorry.' I'll never forget what he said, and he said, ‘Donna, this is the only bright, shining moment in our darkness, this is the only good thing to come out of our nightmare,’ and those words just touched me to the core," says a solemn Donna.
It was the one positive moment that helped the Tritico's work through their pain.
"That was the best part is that she was going to help somebody, she was going to help more people than we knew and she was that kind of a person. She wanted to help people any way she could," says Chris.
Maria's gift has forever enhanced Donna's life.
"I feel so much better. I have a new lease on life, and Maria will always be part of me. I try to be the best person I can. I try to do good deeds every day like she did, just knowing she's with me always," smiles Donna.
She even wears a bracelet with Maria's name on it as a constant reminder of her beautiful gift of life.
Now, the Hawkins urge others to sign up on the organ donor registry.
"I think Maria's legacy is that you too can be a miracle if you donate organs. I think perhaps what this country really needs is a national law making a presumption of organ donation upon someone's death, unless they opt-out on their driver's license or ID card. I think the beginning of that could be something like 'Maria's Law', because it's just senseless how many lives we lose each year that can be saved by people donating. I urge anyone watching to reach deep into their heart, and consider donating their organs. You'd be a hero to so many, and you're not only helping the recipient, but you're also touching the lives of everybody that recipient knows and loves, their family, their friends, you'll be a hero to so many," states Bill.
Two unlikely friends now tied together forever by Maria and it brings a life lesson for us all.
"It's interesting to note, Chris was a career defense attorney, while I spent my legal career as a prosecutor. Even though we were adversaries in the courtroom, we always treat each other with kindness and with respect and we became friends. I think if there's anything else to take from this, it's the fact that you can have different viewpoints or be on different sides, and still respect and honor each other and become close," states Donna.
While the Tritico family fully supports organ donation, they want others to realize what to expect. It can be emotionally difficult to work through the process, including the conversations about it.
"These guys come in and they were very aggressive with us about it. He said, ‘we're going to send in the harvest team,’ and I looked up at this guy, I'm holding my daughter's hand, and I said, ‘you need to change the name of that team’ and he said ‘what?’ and I said, ‘you don't understand how offensive that is to say to parents who just lost their daughter and you're in the wrong line of work,’" says Chris.
Besides the wording, Chris says it's important to know that it takes a while to complete the process of organ donation.
"You have this impression that you go in and they declare you deceased and they just take you off of life support and everybody kisses and they go home. Well, it took four days for them to match these organs. So we had to go back to the hospital every day for four days because I'm not leaving my daughter, and Debbie's not leaving her daughter, and Chad's not leaving his fiancée. So every day for four days until Friday, we had to go back there and sit with Maria. And it's grueling, waiting for them to come in one day and say ‘we're ready to do this surgery.’ So all day, every day, we're sitting in this hospital room with our daughter, who's been declared deceased," says Chris.
Debbie says it was a brutal situation to go through.
"It doesn't look like she's dead. That's the hard part. She doesn't feel like she's gone, but that was the best part is that she was going to help somebody, she was going to help more people than we knew, and she was that kind of a person. She wanted to help people any way she could. So knowing that she was going to hopefully help Donna and this wish, that she had given her organs, is the miracle. It wasn't our miracle, it was somebody else's miracle, but she was that miracle to them," says Debbie.
Maria was able to save three lives with her donation. More than 100,000 people are waiting for a life-saving transplant.
You can sign up to be a donor at https://www.donatelife.net