A tireless William Spiekerman barrels around the hospital conference room, insisting his new friend Brenlie join him in the adjacent playroom.
“Come on, let’s go play!” he pleads excitedly. “Let’s go play on the playground!”
Before he can bolt out the door, his mother intercedes.
“Hold on a second, William,” she said. “Can you show me where your head is?”
The 3-year-old raises his hands and rests them on his perfectly gelled blonde hair; a proud smirk spreading across his face.
“Good job,” his mother praises. “How about your tummy? Where’s your tummy?”
William instantly moves his tiny hands onto his belly, softly patting it as he lets out a giddy shriek.
“That’s right,” Katie says. “Now, where’s your Ashlie?”
The beaming toddler points to an area just to the side of his tummy and exclaims, “Right here! Ashlie’s right here! Thank you, Ashlie!”
William refers to his kidney, donated by Ashlie Wright of Paradise.
The 22-year-old died of a blood clot in her brain in October 2011. But her pledge as an organ donor – a sign of her giving nature, her family said – provided solace for her grieving family and a renewed go at life to spunky, lively William.
Neither notion is lost on the Spiekerman family.
“That a match was found was a huge relief, a blessing, yes,” Katie said. “But you realize that while you’re getting your best news, someone else’s family is getting their worst. They are saying goodbye to a loved one.”
At a flag-raising ceremony Tuesday at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Ashlie’s family was able to see a part of their daughter, mother and sister alive.
Ashlie’s parents Wendy and Lonnie Vann; younger sister Sidney, a senior at Paradise High School; and 23-month-old daughter, Brenlie Barnes, met William – who was joined by his mother, his father Chuck and grandparents Warren and Lori Carver of Watauga – for the first time at the event marking the beginning of National Donate Life Month.
“This is bittersweet,” Wendy said. “It reminds us of the loss. All that pain comes back. But we have to remember what this is all about … We are a donor family. It was in my upbringing. You give back, that’s God’s way. We believe your body is a shell that temporarily holds the soul, and if you can let your organs go to saving someone else’s life, you should.
“Ashlie would’ve. She would help anyone however she could.”
According to LifeGift, the not-for-profit organ procurement organization that enabled correspondence between the two families, Ashlie saved seven lives by donating her organs, enhanced 50 others through tissue donation and provided bone and blood for more than a dozen others.
“Seventy-three. She’s changed 73 different lives by being an organ donor,” Lonnie said. “And that doesn’t include the heart. She wasn’t able to donate that because it takes a year to recover after childbirth (Brenlie was only five months old when her mother died). I didn’t realize how many other different items you could take.”
The Spiekermans are boundlessly grateful for the kidney their William received. Birth trauma as the result of an early delivery in February 2010 caused William’s multi-organ failure.
“In its recovery, your body prioritizes whatever uses blood first, and your kidneys are the very last on the list,” Katie said.
Consequently, William was diagnosed with end stage renal disease (ESRD), which inhibited his kidneys from working well enough for him to live without dialysis.
“It’s more a quality-of-life problem,” Katie said. “Patients can survive on dialysis. It’s similar to the condition that caused the actor Gary Coleman to be so short in stature. William won’t have to do that because of Ashlie. In fact, in the first year after the transplant, William grew 10 inches.”
Two days after Ashlie’s death, just three months after being placed on a waiting list, 20-month-old William received the transplant Oct. 18, 2011.
Within two hours, his bloodwork came back normal. The kidney was functioning. Initially the organ, the size of an adult fist, bulged out from William’s abdominal area.
“But after the edema went away, she nestled in where she wanted to be,” Katie said. “It was instantaneous. He just picked up. (The transplanted organ) can be asleep for a couple of days, but not William’s. It was right away.
“And he has yet to stop,” she added, stifling a chuckle.
“That’s Ashlie – up and running,” Wendy said. “You had no idea what you were getting. You’ve got my Ashlie. You’re in for it.”
The family describes her as a “crazy, fun-loving, very giving, family-oriented people person” who enjoyed drawing houses, riding horses, playing softball, camping, riding four-wheelers, cooking outdoors and swimming.
“She was quite a character,” her mother said. “I can’t think of a photo where she isn’t making that fish face and deuces.”
After graduating from Paradise High School in 2007, Ashlie earned a degree from Westwood College.
“She wanted to graduate (high school), graduate college. But more than anything, she wanted to be a mom,” Wendy said. “God allowed her to do that for a short time. And during that time, she was all about that baby. We look back and realize God gave us a chance to have her and gave her a chance to do the things she wanted to do the most.”
Providing new life to an ailing child would be another one of those things, Lonnie added.
“If you can help someone else, you should, whatever it may be,” he said. “That’s what she lived by. We can’t change the past. But if we can use our past to help people learn, if it helps one person, it’s worth it. It’s what Ashlie would want us to do.”
Since the transplant, William has started swim lessons, eating and drinking by mouth – previously hindered by nausea caused by the dialysis – and he can be around other children because he is less susceptible to infections.
“We’ve taken precautions and made the necessary arrangements to keep Will healthy,” Katie told Ashlie’s family. “From the very beginning, we saw this as our responsibility to Will and to you.”
The newly-introduced family embraces. Thank-yous echo from William’s parents and grandparents.
“No, thank you,” Wendy said. “This brings my family together again. It means a lot. Not everyone may accept it or have the grace of God to deal with this. But knowing other people are living better … I know it may sound weird, and I miss her every day. But Ashlie’s found a home; she’s still alive. I see that through Will.”
“She is, and we take good care of her.”
To become a donor or for more information, visit www.lifegift.org. To donate to a specific hospital, Katie suggests directly calling the specific facility of choice.