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Happily Different

My husband's son from his first marriage, Eric, was born in 1967 severely disabled by Down syndrome (Trisomy 21). Despite his disability and his appearance typical of people with Down syndrome, Eric was a beautiful child. He was also very happy and loving. Mentally he didn't develop past the first grade level at school. Though his verbal skills were almost nonexistent, he learned to speak in sign language, and he was a good athlete winning many prizes at the Special Olympics as a runner. However, he could never really care for himself. He went to a special school, had a sign language tutor, and later on as he turned into an adult he worked feeding farm animals. He especially loved music and knew exactly which songs he wanted to hear. He never lived with either of his parents either together before their divorce or after each remarried.

My husband and I saw him often first at the home of his foster parents who kept him until he was 21 years old and later at his community home in California's San Fernando Valley. He loved to eat at McDonald's. He made the hand sign for hamburger as soon as we arrived to take him for lunch. He had a tendency to gobble down his food when he ate.

When Eric was 38 years old he choked gobbling down a peanut butter sandwich while on a picnic with his community group at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, CA. His caregivers tried the Heimlich maneuver and tried reaching in his mouth to retrieve the food, but he passed out before the paramedics arrived.

Still on a ventilator the next morning, the neurologist gave us no hope that Eric would ever return to the normal life such as he had before the accident. Should he be able to breathe on his own he would be in a vegetative state. It then became my husband's decision to keep the ventilator going or remove it. He chose, after consulting with his ex-wife - their first communication in over 20 years - to have it removed. "But, wait," the doctor said. "The nurse needs to talk to you." The nurse presented my husband with the idea of harvesting his organs. That afternoon my husband, after making this second hard decision with his ex-wife, returned to the hospital to see Eric for the last time and sign papers to donate his organs.

The next morning Eric was brought to surgery, and the ventilator was removed. He took three breaths and died, and the surgeons removed his liver and kidneys. By the end of the day his organs were keeping other human beings alive.

Every one of the speakers at his memorial service said how happy Eric always made them feel. They said he liked to play jokes on them. This young man, though mentally challenged from birth, managed to live a happy life with a group of friends who very much appreciated his comic talents.