A freak accident killed his 10-year-old son Garrett. But his organs and tissues live on in 132 people.
Every 10 minutes, a new person is added to the organ transplant waiting list. Find out what goes into registering to be an organ donor. Stephen J. Beard/IndyStar
ONAWA, Ia. — Bruce Brockway isn’t sure what tense to use when talking about his son, Garrett.
On the one hand, Garrett died in 2013. But on the other, he’s alive in 132 people — and they are alive because of him.
His heart beats on in Kade, who had three open-heart surgeries before his second birthday. His cartilage is with Krissy, a police officer injured in the line of duty who could barely move before the transplant and was hiking with her daughter just months after. And one of his corneas reversed the deterioration in Emma’s eyes and allowed her, 10 years old when she had the surgery, to see her parents clearly for the first time.
Experiencing an unexpected and very welcomed joy hearing about the lives Garrett’s donated organs and tissues touched, Brockway and his wife, Tiffini, started a foundation in their 10-year-old boy’s name to promote organ donation and combat the myths that keep people from choosing to give life.
Even though Iowa has one of the highest percentages of registered organ donors in the country, Brockway and Dave Full, Garrett’s great uncle, are hoping to make connections with people from states and countries where organ donation is less prevalent.
And for the Burlington-based Brockway, the opportunity to represent his son in his home state was one he couldn’t pass up, he said.
They fit right in on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which often attracts teams who pedal for a greater purpose, said T.J. Juskiewicz, RAGBRAI’s director. Riders seem to find the ride’s collegial atmosphere low-key enough to connect with people about difficult topics, he said.
“We’re just ordinary people, so we go to the beer tent like anyone else and we don’t push anything,” Brockway said. “But when they ask us why we’re here, we start a conversation and that leads to changed minds and we honestly believe that could lead to a life saved.”
Team Share It, as the Donor Network’s team is called, hopes to stand out with the simplicity of their message — just register to be an organ donor — and with a little bit of humor. They are handing out bracelets that say, “Registered Organ Donor: Who Wouldn’t Want a Piece of This?”
Sitting just off the square hosting RAGBRAI's party, Brockway is pretty sure Garrett would think the bracelets were as funny as he does.
But don’t let his laughter fool you, Brockway is deadly serious.
He knows what a difference one choice can make. He knows that in the wake of a tragedy, one person’s story of life and death can radiate out like a tree with endless branches, touching and helping more people than one can ever know.
“When I left the hospital, I thought it was the last chapter,” Brockway said. “As much as you know you will remember him, you still think that’s the end of something. But Garrett’s life has continued — not in the way we thought — and that has helped us, as a family, deal with this.”
Bruce needs a minute to tell me about Garrett. Even though he talks a lot about Garrett and it has been five years, the pain is there, always, just under the surface.
Garrett was, in a word, “awesome,” Brockway said after collecting himself. He read at a ninth-grade level even though he was only in the fourth grade. He loved participating in baseball, basketball, soccer, youth triathlons and 5Ks with his parents almost most as much as he enjoyed noodling his younger sister, Adeline. He was a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan, and would tease his great uncle Full, a die-hard Cubs fan.
In February 2013, a large ice storm hit southeastern Iowa and Brockway asked Garrett to help him clean up the trees and branches strewn around their property. A freak accident caused a dead tree to fall into another tree that fell onto Garrett.
Garrett was airlifted to the University of Iowa where Full, who lives in Iowa City, met him as he came off the helicopter.
For four days, the family watched the pressure in the boy's skull build until the doctor confirmed their nightmare: Garrett was not going to survive.
As the doctor was delivering his prognosis, Brockway was overcome with the idea that Garrett would want to be an organ donor. Little did he know when he asked his wife to chat privately that she was thinking the same thing.
If given the choice, Garrett would choose to give, she told him.
“It was God,” Brockway said of that moment. “My son was dying, and yet I felt this warmth and momentary comfort when we made that decision.”
As the hospital ran tests and the donation apparatus kicked into gear, the family spent a “beautiful day” with Garrett. They listened to faith music from Brockway’s phone, they held his hand and as he was wheeled down for surgery, Brockway read him Psalm 139.
“It felt like such a hard closing of the door, but that day helped us process and put a little bit of a pause on the overwhelming grief that no one can prepare you for,” he said.
Garrett was buried in an official St. Louis Cardinals jersey with "Brockway" embroidered on the back, a gift from the club after officials heard about his death.
A few weeks after Garrett’s burial, a packet showed up in the Brockway’s mailbox. Inside were the stories of five recipients, why they needed Garrett’s gift and what their life was like now. The Brockways replied and eventually were trading letters with a handful of recipients.
Tiffini and Bruce made a pact they would only open the letters when they were both home.
“Our hearts were shattered, but these were a spot of light in everything,” he said. “It was healing and I think it helped create a sense of normalcy and routine in a time that was just turmoil.”
Like a soccer player or a NASCAR racer, RAGBRAI teams wear gear emblazoned with their logos and names. Most of these are just for fun, but a few are for a greater cause, Juskiewicz said.
“At its core, RAGBRAI is a fraternity of riders,” he said. “And we see people come back every year with the same message because they get so many positive reactions on the ride.”
In Iowa, 69 percent of adults were registered as donors in 2017, according to Donate Life, a nonprofit working to increase donor numbers. That puts the Hawkeye State above the national average of 54 percent and way above New York and Puerto Rico, where the percentage of donors is 28 and 21, respectively.
Even though Iowa has a high donor rate, there are still myths to be fought, Brockway and Full said.
The biggest one is the prevailing idea that if you are a donor, doctors will not work as hard to save you, Full said.
“That’s just absolutely crazy,” he said. “I was by that 10-year-old’s side every day and even though I think doctors knew that he wasn’t going to survive, they did everything they could. If there was ever a question about that for us, we’d be having a different conversation.”
Another myth is that religious beliefs would hinder people from donating. In fact, all three major world religions welcome people to choose donation.
For the Brockways, devout Catholics, checking in with their priest was part of their decision-making process. When they did, they discovered that Pope Francis has encouraged organ donation “as an act of charity.”
“It is something good that can result from tragedy and a way for families to find comfort by helping others,” Francis has said. “Organ donation is a testimony of love for our neighbor."
Finally, there’s the idea that your loved one wouldn’t be themselves without all his or her organs. That’s ridiculous to Brockway.
“Garrett didn’t die so that they could live,” he said. “Garrett died, but because of that other are able to live.
“We all have a terminal illness called life. This body is just for me to get around on this earth. If it can help somebody else when I am done with it, I don’t know why you wouldn't let them have it.”
The tree keeps growing
One of the letters the Brockways received soon after Garrett’s death was from Leslie Becker, a Type 1 diabetic who had been in desperate need of a pancreas.
She previously had both a pancreas and a kidney transplant, after which she was healthy enough to adopt a son, who she named Aiden.
But a few years later, her pancreas started to fail. Doctors told her she could not continue to live — and to be Aiden’s mom — without a new one.
She struggled with what to write the Brockways in her letter because “saying thank you isn’t enough.”
She eventually settled on: “Because of this transplant and the success of it, I am now able to have a normal life; something I did not know would happen.”
In honor of the gift Garrett gave her, she runs in the Transplant Games and the Brockway’s Foundation's annual 5K.
Garrett is so much a part of her family that his school picture sits on her mantle right next to her son’s.
“I think about Garrett every day when I take my firsts breath,” she said. “He’s my angel. He’s an angel of God for my entire family.”
Brockway and Full brought a bundle of bracelets to the opening ceremonies of RAGBRAI and were all out within the first 40 minutes. Two people — including a former beauty queen — promised to sign up to be donors as soon as they could get service.
Nothing about life as parent after the death of a child is easy, Brockway said, but having a cause allows him to keep Garrett’s memory alive every day, and to talk about him whenever he wants.
A seed was planted in Brockway the day Garret died, but the tree that grew because of his 10-year-old's gifts has branches he would have never expected — including a few from freshly sprouted by cyclists ambling across Iowa.
COURTNEY CROWDER traverses the state's 99 counties as the Register's Iowa Columnist. She has been an organ donor since she turned 16. Reach her at 515-284-8360 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.