Monday, November 21, 2016

TOP STORY >> Donor's heart still beating

Leader staff writer

Editor’s note: This  article, originally published on Oct. 24, 2015, recently won the Arkansas Society of Professional Journalists’ Diamond Award for narrative and feature writing.

The judge’s comments said, “What a great bit of reporting. This story has a number of twists and angles that were all delicately handled by the writer. Every reader should be touched in some way by this story.”

As Kristy Cotillier lay her head on her dying son’s chest, listening to his heart, she prayed that she would be able to hear it again.

She did this past weekend in the chest of a 20-year-old girl from Iowa. “Oh, my God, it was overwhelming to hear again, so strong and so healthy,” his mother said.

She compared it to having another child. “His heart gave her life,” Kristy said.

The heart was one of many organs that Evan Cotillier, a Cabot sophomore, had asked to be donated before he died in October 2013.

“Some people say there aren’t miracles, but we are living one,” said Evan’s dad, Rodney.

The Cotilliers said they received some backlash when they donated their son’s heart, kidneys, liver, eyes and tissue.

“It was an easier decision because it’s what Evan wanted,” his mom explained. His heart went to Iowa, his liver to Florida, and his kidneys stayed in Arkansas.

Smiling, she said, “He even wanted his brain donated to science to help them find a cure for epilepsy, but it was too damaged.”

So how did this 16-year-old honor roll student, who loved football, decide to donate his organs?’

His dad, Rodney, tells it best: “We had just finished watching the movie ‘Seven Pounds’ with Will Smith, and it revolved around organ donating and transplants. He asked me if I was a donor. I told him absolutely.”

Evan then asked him how one could become an organ donor. “I told him I had it marked on my driver’s license,” his dad said, “But, he said, ‘Dad, I have epilepsy. I can’t get a driver’s license, how will they know?’”

Rodney said he just put his son off. “Evan, you’re 16, you are not going to die anytime soon,” Rodney said.

A few minutes later, he heard Evan in the kitchen asking his mom the same thing.

“She said the same thing I did, that he wasn’t dying. His response was that, whenever he did die, she had to tell the doctors that he wanted to donate his organs.”

Rodney said his wife continued to hem and haw, but Evan made her “pinkie promise.”

“It was something they had been doing since he was in third grade and she was his teacher. A pinkie promise was serious, and she said she would,” Rodney said.

Neither parent knew that, a month later, they would find the popular high school student in their house unresponsive after an epileptic attack.

He died Oct. 3, 2013.

Two days later, his heart was being placed in Jaclyn Montour’s chest in Iowa on her dad’s birthday.
Kristy said it was a miracle that she was alive to receive Evans’ heart.

“She had been on life support twice, but did manage to walk across the stage with the rest of her senior class with her IV and other medical equipment,” she said.

Rodney said, according to the doctors, shortly before receiving Evan’s heart, she had 72 pints of blood.

“The doctors couldn’t stop her bleeding,” Rodney said. “When they did, her doctor rejected a couple of other hearts, looking for the perfect one, looking for Evan’s.”

How did the Cotilliers meet Jaclyn and her family?

The Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency, known as ARORA, allows both the receiving and giving families to write letters. The agency makes sure the letters get to the right people.

“We weren’t allowed to give any personal information in the letter we wrote to the family receiving Evan’s heart,” Kristy explained. “Jaclyn and her family wrote one, too, and the Cotilliers couldn’t have received Jaclyn’s letter at a better time.”

They received it around Thanksgiving 2014. “The fall was Evan’s and my time. We did everything together from Halloween right through Christmas. But, that year, I wasn’t in the mood. I was struggling really bad. I was miserable,” Rodney said.

But the letter came and it said the heart successfully went to a 19-year-old from Iowa.

“That’s all we knew,” Kristy said. She then hit the Internet and found the name of a girl matching the description and messaged her. “We emailed them a picture of the letter they sent.”

The two families got to know each other on Facebook and by phone.

Jaclyn invited the Cotilliers up to Iowa for a heart-and- lung-recipient gathering that she was going to and it just happened to be last weekend, the Cotillier’s anniversary.

“You can’t write this stuff,” Rodney said, still in disbelief.

“We said yes and were going to drive up, when we were told that ARORA often helps financially to unite families. We applied, thinking he’d get some gas money. They gave us a check to fly up there, for lodging and for food,” Rodney said. “I was speechless.”

Besides the hugs and tears, both families spent time together, and the Cotilliers were asked to speak at the transplant gathering.

In a hallway after that meeting, both Kristy and Rodney had a chance to listen to Evan’s heart. “I had left my stethoscope in Arkansas, but Jaclyn’s grandmother is a nurse and had one,” Rodney said.

At first, he was worried that listening to his son’s heart would bring back all the grief.

“But, when I heard the heartbeat, I was proud. My son paid the ultimate sacrifice but was still able to give all he could to let others live,” he said, adding, “I felt a grace, a peace. I was tearful, but in a proud way.

“Do you know he always said he wanted to be like me, but at his funeral I read a letter I wrote in which I said I wanted to be like Evan.”

Evan showed no signs of epilepsy until he was about 7 or 8, according to his parents.

“It started with a ‘tick,’” his dad said. By the time he was 12, Evan had been diagnosed with epilepsy.

“It was his final year of football,” Rodney, who coached him in youth programs, said. “The doctors said the hits would be detrimental to him.”

The story starts long before Evan’s death, according to his father.

Rodney said it was Evan who steered his dad to his wife and the woman Evan called mom.

The Cotilliers were living in Chicago and things weren’t going well. “It was Evan who suggested we move here to be near an uncle. So I packed up the four kids and headed to Arkansas,” Rodney said.

The family moved into a Gravel Ridge home just one street within the Warren Dupree attendance zone.

Evan went to elementary school and had Kristy (Miss Terry back then) as a third-grade teacher.

Once, he got in trouble and wrote Ms. Terry a note apologizing for his foolishness and saying that he wished she was his mom.

Rodney said, at the time, Kristy was married and he was dating someone else.

One day, Evan got off the bus and was running home on air, and his dad asked him why he was so excited.

“Evan said, ‘Dad, Ms. Terry’s divorced, Ms. Terry’s divorced.’”

“It’s amazing how much he’s guided our lives,” the Cotilliers said.