Organ donor advocates Amy Dutil-Wall and Genesee County Clerk John Gleason are sharing their organ donor stories for April’s National Donate Life Month.
By Monica Drake
Featured photo by Erica Sandusky Photography
Two years ago, Flint native Amy Dutil-Wall heard four words a mother should never hear: “Your daughter will die.”
“I don’t remember much of anything (the doctor) said before or after that, but I so clearly remember those words,” Dutil-Wall says.
Her little girl, Estlin Luna, was a strong-willed, independent, creative, stunning, happy child who loved to sing, dance, draw and paint. “I couldn’t wait to see the woman she’d grow into with those kinds of qualities, and I vowed to always encourage that confidence and independence,” Dutil Wall says.
Yet, nine days before her fourth birthday, she was taken off life support after being involved in a fatal car crash.
On March 15, 2017, Dutil-Wall’s husband, Vinnie, was driving Estlin to day care when a truck turned into the opposite lane in an attempt to pass a slow-moving bus. Vinnie had to swerve to miss the truck and lost control of the vehicle, spinning into oncoming traffic.
“A car traveling behind the truck ended up hitting Estlin’s passenger side door directly. The impact was so great it snapped her neck instantly,” Dutil-Wall says.
As Estlin was taking her final breaths, Dutil-Wall placed her hand on her daughter’s chest — feeling her slow heartbeats. Dutil-Wall’s younger sister, Audrey Decker, sang the lyrics to Amy’s favorite poem, “I Carry Your Heart with Me” by EE (Edward Estlin) Cummings — Estlin’s namesake.
“Audrey had set the poem to music, and she started singing that song she had written. I had no idea she was going to do that,” Dutil-Wall says. “I’ll never ever forget, about halfway through the song, a single tear slid down Estlin’s cheek. I often wonder, I know she had nearly zero brain activity, but did she know?”
As a result of the car crash, Vinnie was in a coma for several weeks, so it was up to Dutil-Wall to make all the decisions regarding their daughter. When the doctors asked if she would consider donating their daughter’s organs, she immediately answered, “Yes.”
With April being National Donate Life Month, Dutil-Wall wanted to share Estlin’s story with SEEN. Estlin’s lungs were given to a toddler with cystic fibrosis, and her kidneys went to a 60-year-old man on dialysis.
“There are parts of her that still exist and function somewhere in the world today. To know that she literally is a lifesaver is such a point of pride for me,” Dutil-Wall says.
She hopes that, whenever recipients of organ donations think of their transplants, they will also think of the person who died to make that happen.
“One family’s miracle transplant is another family’s worst nightmare. … That life is only being saved because someone somewhere decided to be totally selfless and give the gift of life in their most heartbreaking moment,” Dutil-Wall says. “(Estlin’s) death was a senseless loss, and I chose to bring some good from it by offering her organs.”
Promoting Michigan Organ Donation
Dutil-Wall, a Flint Central High School and Michigan State University alum, now lives in Ireland with her husband and 2-year-old son Mannix. She is returning to visit her hometown in May.
While in Flint, she is planning to meet with Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, who wants to personally thank her for donating Estlin’s organs. Gleason has been an advocate of organ donation since his own life was saved by a kidney transplant in September 2001.
Michigan has taken great strides in regard to organ donation thanks to Gleason, who was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2002 and to the Michigan Senate in 2006.
“When I was a state representative, Michigan was one of the worst states with only 600,000 names on the organ donation registry list. Now we have about 5 million, and more than 60 percent of drivers are now donors,” Gleason says.
In 2003, Gleason sponsored House Bill 4479, signed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, which prohibits family members from revoking the decision of an organ donor, age 18 or older, after death. In 2005, he sponsored two bills that required Secretary of State staff to provide information about becoming a donor to all license applicants and created the heart insignia now placed on the driver’s licenses of organ donors.
“This law (made) more organs available to the people who so desperately need them to stay alive,” Gleason says. “The newspaper is filled, every day, with obituaries. And, each person, if they’re an organ donor, could save, enhance or extend at least one other life. … Don’t take your organs with you to heaven. Heaven knows we need them on earth.”
When he was state rep, people across the state would contact him, and he says one of his most memorable phone calls was from Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital in Saginaw. Six-month-old Kyle Ray Horning had just died, and his parents wanted to donate his organs — but were denied.
“The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan said that they needed all the evidence they could when it came to SID (sudden infant death syndrome) babies, so the hospital would not let the family donate his organs,” Gleason says. “I was in the midst of working with another representative from Livingston County to draft legislation to make a donation exceed investigation — that the gift of an organ should be the first priority.”
So, what did Gleason do? He called Granholm up to say, “We need that bill signed right now.”
“She signed the bill that minute, and (a member of her staff) ran it from her office to the Secretary of State’s office to enroll it as a public act so it would become a Michigan law. The Secretary of State’s office faxed me the bill, I faxed it to St. Mary’s Hospital and then they had to release Kyle’s body for donation,” Gleason says. “That was probably the most consequential experience I have ever had.”
In 2018, he founded the Gleason Community Fund, a nonprofit committed to educating the public about organ donation. Each year, through his organization, Gleason offers three scholarships, totaling $2,500, to high school seniors planning to pursue a career in medicine, preferably in transplant medicine. The 2019 winners will be announced next month.
The organization is also hosting two fundraisers this summer — the Annual Gleason Clay Shoot from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 14 at Grand Blanc Huntsman’s Club in Grand Blanc and the Donation Nation Walk/Run at 9 a.m. Aug. 3 at Ascension Genesys Hospital in Grand Blanc.
To become an organ donor, sign up here or visit the nearest Secretary of State office. Organ donors will receive a heart sticker to put on their driver’s licenses.
Monica Drake is a journalism graduate from Oakland University who received the national title of Digital Innovator of the Year by the Local Media Association in 2013 and was named one of WGRT 102.3 FM’s “52 Real Women.” Visit her website meant2live.net and connect with her on Instagram at @monicaadele13.