Hoag's Tree of Life ceremony honors organ donors

By Daily Pilot

Categories: Featured News
Devin and Veronica Eckhardt stood on a street corner in July 2014 to watch as a helicopter with their late son Connor's heart aboard departed from Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. More than a year later, Veronica Eckhardt says that the light that shined brightly inside Connor — the one that made him a happy, generous, life-loving teenager — is present in the people who have received his donated organs.

In photographs of that moment last year, Veronica's hands are raised toward the sky as if to say a final goodbye to her 19-year-old son, who fell into a coma days earlier after smoking "spice" with a friend. Spice, also known as K2, is a synthetic form of marijuana that some experts say can overwhelm brain circuitry, leading to psychosis, kidney problems, high body temperature, heart attack or death.

Since Connor's death, the Eckhardts have made it a mission to shine a light on the dangers of synthetic marijuana. They created a nonprofit called the Connor Project Foundation dedicated to educating the public about the drug that killed their son. They have met with senators in an attempt to change laws connected to spice, spoken with Drug Enforcement Administration officials, participated in lectures at youth summits and responded to countless messages from strangers who have a problem with the drug or know someone who does.

"We wanted to have a greater opportunity to change how people think about spice," Devin Eckhardt said. "Really, it's about teaching people how to make informed choices — what they should say no to and what to say yes to, like organ donation."

The Tree of Life, a large replica of a bamboo tree — widely regarded as a symbol of virtue and longevity — was designed for the hospital in 2011 to honor those who posthumously gave life or an improved quality of life to a stranger through organ donation. From 2006 to 2014, Hoag had 59 organ donors, the most of any nontrauma hospital in Orange County, according to data provided by the hospital.

Tom Olds, a Hoag Hospital Foundation board member, knows firsthand the joy and relief that organ donation can bring to families.

In 1993, Olds was 37 with a young family when he was told he needed a liver transplant.

He remembers being overwhelmed during his drive home with his wife after hearing the news. At the time, the life expectancy for someone who received a donated organ was five to 10 years, he said.

"We cried the whole way home," Olds said. "I just kept thinking that I wasn't going to see my family grow up, see my kids graduate from high school, college, get married. I was going to miss everything."

But, he said, because of advances in medicine involving organ donation, he's healthy 22 years later.

"There may be nothing else in the human experience that is so intimate," he said. "Someone who chooses to bless the life of someone else in a time of tragedy ... it's an extraordinary thing."

The Eckhardts said Connor chose to become an organ donor shortly before his fatal encounter with spice. He called his father to ask for advice, and after a lengthy conversation, he made up his mind — his driver's license would bear the pink dot identifying him as willing to give up his organs when he could no longer use them.

"Connor said, 'Someday when I die, I'm not going to need my organs, and if I can help someone have a second chance, that's what I want to do'," his mother recalled. "That was Connor to a tee. He gave it all away."

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