Each square on the quilt tells a different story.
On the top row, several squares in from the right, 3-month-old Rylee Jackson smiles out, surrounded by her favorite color purple and eight butterflies. The baby enchanted her parents and two older brothers with her trademark smile until she died on Nov. 4 after coming down with a cold that progressed and finally ended in cardiac arrest. She was revived and declared brain dead a few days later.
“Our daughter, Rylee, was a gift from the beginning,” said Autumn Toelle-Jackson, of Burns. “When she was born, she was perfect. Her brothers, Cody, 6, and Wade, 3, couldn’t get enough of her. She would grab their fingers and they would light up. She was the first person to whom her oldest brother showed off his newly won mutton-bustin’ buckle.”
Toelle-Jackson spoke Saturday at the unveiling of the 2019 Threads of Life Quilt, which contains squares honoring specific organ donors and recipients. The unveiling happens in two different Oregon cities annually, this year in Salem and in Pendleton at the Pendleton Center for the Arts.
In Rylee’s short life, she drank in the family moments, her mom said. The little girl watched her brothers fish and fly kites. She experienced camping in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the waves and sand of the Oregon coast. Her parents and brothers soaked her in too. Her death hit the family hard.
Toelle-Jackson said the idea of donating Rylee’s organs pulled at her and her husband Kyle.
“While we were suffering and there would be no miracle for us, perhaps Rylee could be a miracle for others,” Toelle-Jackson said.
As she talked she glanced up at Rylee’s quilt square. Each of the patches around her beautiful daughter held another tale of loss and hope.
Organ donor Denise Anderson, of Medford, had a passion for cooking. Her square included her favorite recipe for spritz cookies. Another patch honored Portlander Nakia Hentz, who was both a heart recipient and a donor. Chris Peterson, of Happy Valley, donated his corneas, kidneys, lungs and tissue after crashing on his motorcycle in 2014 at age 24. He flashed a brilliant smile from the quilt.
“Each block is much more than pieces of fabric,” said Aimee Adelmann, director of education and outreach at Donate Life Northwest, which organized the event. “It is a way to continue to tell stories of how many people have been impacted by organ, eye and tissue donation.”
Joining Toelle-Jackson on Saturday were two local heart recipients who had also made quilt squares.
Phil Weitz had a heart transplant in 2012 after a massive heart attack. The tall Umatilla resident with glasses and a goatee said he survived with the aid of a left ventricle assist device until the transplant.
Weitz moved temporarily to Spokane to be close in case a heart came available. He said he was grocery shopping one day when he got a call from the medical team.
“Are you ready to come to the hospital for a transplant?” the caller asked, and Weitz felt the ground fall from under him. He looked down at his full cart and said, “What do I do with all this food? I’m getting a heart transplant.” An employee told him just to go and some of the shoppers clapped as he left the store.
After his transplant, he felt grateful to the donor, but no guilt.
“They told me I might have sorrow and grief because someone died and I had lived,” Weitz said.
“I felt no guilt because I didn’t end his life. I felt blessed and gifted because of this man.”
Weitz later met his donor’s sister and brother, who came to Umatilla to meet him and listen to his heart. He learned the man died after falling off a curb and hitting his head.
“You never know when you get up each morning,” Weitz said. “We take our days for granted.”
Cindy McIntyre, of Hermiston, spoke after Weitz. McIntyre’s odyssey started one day in the car with her husband Steve. Sudden fatigue washed over her and she laid her head back.
“Steve looked over at me and I had a beet-red face, eyes rolled back and I was foaming at the mouth,” she said. “He hit me in the chest, which apparently got my heart started again.”
He ran red lights to get her to Good Shepherd Medical Center. She learned she was in congestive heart failure from previously undiagnosed hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a congenital defect. She had 56 more episodes in the following months and believes she was only hours from death when a heart came available.
“A couple of hours later I would have been a goner,” McIntyre said. “Then my doctor called and asked, ‘How would you like a new heart tonight?’”
Five years later, she looks healthy. Both she and Weitz tell their stories as volunteers for Donate Life Northwest to motivate others to mark yes on the organ donation box on their driver’s licenses.
Adelmann said representatives from the organization spend time at Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles offices around the Northwest, informing employees about organ donation so they can answer the public’s questions or refer them.
“Ninety-nine percent of registrations come from the DMV,” she said. “They do a lot of really important work.”
The organization also brings the quilt into various DMVs so customers can get a more personal look at organ donation and its aftermath.
The quilt will travel around the state. Toelle-Jackson will host the quilt at this summer’s Harney County Fair.
Toelle-Jackson said she and Kyle don't regret the decision to donate Rylee’s organs.
“Driving home the three hours without her was the hardest thing we have ever done, but knowing she has given three other families some hope gives some purpose to our loss and pain,” she said.
“Being able to donate has helped our family. Even in the darkest hour, there lives hope.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.