Tuesday, February 07, 2017

TOP STORY >> Son’s memory lives forever

Leader staff writer

An all-expense paid trip to attend the Rose Parade, a chance to work on a float, greet people from across the country and even a chance celebrity meeting – a wonderful five days in sunny California.

“It was a bittersweet exciting experience with sad undertones. My husband and I would have traded it all if we could have gotten our son back,” said Kristy Cotillier of Cabot.

The Cotilliers lost their 16-year-old son Evan in October 2013 to epilepsy, but right before he died, he convinced his parents to donate his organs.

“We were able to donate his heart, kidneys, eyes and tissue. His heart went to a young girl in Iowa who has become a member of our family. In fact, she just got back from a trip studying art in Europe.”

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

She also said his kidneys went to people in Arkansas, including a distant relative. “We know Evan’s liver went to someone in Florida. We also know his eyes and some of his tissue have been used to help people.”

The Cotilliers were selected as one of 60 donor families to attend the 2017 Rose Parade and flew in four days before the parade to help with the float.

“It was an amazing trip,” she said, adding that all the families stayed in the same hotel. “We had a lot of time to meet and share experiences, laugh and cry. We made some life-long friends in that short five days,” Kristi said. They became very close to a Texas couple who lost their 12-year-old son in a horse accident.

“We even met a family from Canada. I don’t think I’d ever met a Canadian before,” she quipped.

The Cotilliers and other donor families worked four-hour shifts finishing the Donate Life float, which is overseen by One Legacy, a Southern California-based nonprofit.

According to One Legacy, 122,000 people across the country are on a waiting list seeking an organ donation.

“You see these floats on TV, but you have no idea the magnitude of the number of flowers that go into a float. It was overwhelming and emotional,” she said. The couple worked on purple irises and some of the white dedication roses.

The morning of the parade, they had to walk to their grandstand seats. “There was no way anyone could drive. People started lining up and finding spots the night before. They brought cots, tents, sleeping bags and grills,” she said.

Kristy added that the businesses along the parade route boarded up all their windows for protection, but it was decorative, “so you really didn’t notice if you were watching it on television,” she explained.

The Donor Life float was third in line. It was a giant catamaran featuring 60 floragraphs – pictures of the donors, including Evan, made out of flowers and other organic material.

The float won for best theme, “Donate Life, Team-mates in Life.”

The rowers were actually 24 donor recipients. Walking alongside the float were 12 living donors, those who gave a kidney to save a life, in what organizers called a “kidney chain.”

The chain features a white woman who gave a kidney to an African-American man whose son donated to an Asian man whose wife donated to a Hispanic woman.

“It tied in with a presentation we had from a surgeon who specializes in kidney transplants,” Kristy said.

“The doctor said when he pulls that kidney out of the box he can’t tell if it came from a black, white or Hispanic person — whether it was male or female. They all look and work the same. He said all he thinks about is the person he’s operating on needs it,” she said.

One of the most amazing aspects of the trip for the Cotilliers was meeting the two women who made Evan’s floragaph. One of the women, Rachel Rodriquez, worked on the floragraphs — created from rice, coffee grounds, spices and other materials — in memory of her 17-month-old grandson who was murdered.

She also made a memorial bracelet for Kristy with a picture of Evan on it.

“There was just so much emotion and love between everyone we met,” she said.

“And Jessica, who was Evan’s nurse in his final days, was one of many who finished the floragraph by adding the eyebrows, using brown cloves. She took amazing care of Evan at Children’s Hospital.”

One of the most amazing attributes about Evan, according to his parents, was that he was always looking for someone who was sad just so he could make them smile, or the next person he could serve.

So how did this 16-year-old honor roll student, who loved football, and was known at home as the “grilled cheese expert,” 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,” he said.

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

Back in October 2013, 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.

Two days later, his heart was being placed in Jaclyn Montour’s chest in Iowa on her dad’s birthday.

A little more than a year after Evan’s death, the Cotilliers met Jacklyn.

Kristy said the meeting was very hard on Rodney – he and Evan were best buddies. At first, Rodney 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,” Rodney said.

And that’s why the Cotilliers have become strong advocates for donating organs.

“Some people say there aren’t miracles, but we are living one,” Rodney said. “You can’t write this stuff.”