Living legacy; Truckee man’s decision allows others to benefit from donor program
What was a tragic death for a Truckee family was a Christmas miracle for more than six California families.
Thanks to a quick thinking on the part of Washoe Medical Center doctors in Reno and the decisions made by family members, Steven Simpson’s death was life for at least six organ recipients and countless others who will receive Simpson’s bones and skin.
“This is what Steven would have wanted,” said Joanne Ichimura-Hoffman, Simpson’s girlfriend. “His legacy was to give to the end.”
Hoffman said within four days after Simpson had suffered a stroke from a brain aneurysm, she and his family made the decision to donate his organs and tissues and the organs were on their way to three different hospitals.
On Thursday, Dec. 18, the 42-year-old man was careflighted to Washoe Medical, where it was determined the bleeding in his brainstem was so extensive that his brain cells were dying.
“It was then that I began asking questions and the process began,” Hoffman said. “I was contacted by a coordinator for the donor program and the wait began.
Hoffman was instructed that Simpson could only be a donor when he was pronounced legally dead. It wasn’t until 7 p.m. Saturday when the announcement came and the death certificate was signed and the real work would be begin.
“We had to keep his organs healthy,” she said. “We kept massaging him and turning him to keep his organs alive.”
The process to donate organs is swift and organized. Recipients are found, tests are made and transplant teams are dispatched, all under the supervision of a local coordinator, who in this case was Virginia Reese from the California Transplant Donor Network.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, Hoffman said goodbye to Simpson for one final time before he was brought into the operating room. Transplant teams from University of California, San Diego and San Francisco, and Stanford University waited anxiously for the lives Simpson held within him.
Hoffman said doctors with the transplant teams called Simpson “one of a special elite group.” It was for his ability to donate everything. She was told he “had the greatest lungs and the biggest heart.” Something she had always known.
“He even had O-positive blood, which made him a universal donor,” she said.
Beside bone and skin, Simpson donated his corneas, heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver, and reports from Reese state the recipients all took to Simpson’s organs and are recovering from surgery.
“They told me his organs were beautiful,” Hoffman said. “He didn’t smoke or drink.”
Reese and Hoffman both emphasized the importance of discussing end-of-life decisions.
“If people just discussed these decisions, there would be no guessing game when the time comes,” Reese said. “This is a difficult process as it is, but it is also a lifesaving process and time is important at the end.”
The CTDN is considered a middle man between family members, the deceased and the doctors. Once death is declared the network takes over the care of the donor and all additional costs are absorbed by the network. There are about 60 such non-profit organizations nationally.
CTDN covers 200 hospitals within northern California and Nevada, which entails round-the-clock phone coverage to answer questions and to dispatch coordinators to families and hospitals needing guidance.
“That’s basically what we do,” Reese said. “We provide education for hospital staffs, answer questions and help coordinate the transfer of lifesaving resources.”
Each hospital is different in its approach to inquiring with family members about the possibility of organ donation, but Reese said that the common thread is the organization’s ability to always be available.
“It is a difficult enough subject to discuss with families,” she said. “We are always there and we would rather be the ones answering questions because we have the answers.”
Hoffman said Reese and her co-coordinator from Redding, made the decisions easy for her.
“They did have all the answers and they put my mind at ease,” Hoffman said. “If there was any doubt about Steven’s decision I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Reese said that because more than 56,000 recipients are waiting for organs, ensuring the family of their decisions is important. At the time of Simpson’s death, he was the first person who was able to, and was willing to, since the middle of 1996 at Washoe Medical.
Donor dots on California driver’s licenses and the special donor embossing on Nevada state licenses are just not enough to make the decision at the end of a person’s life, though, and Reese said it is up to the next of kin to make that decision no matter what.
Hoffman ran into this hurdle. She knew what Simpson wanted, but was not legally his wife. She said Simpson’s mother and brother needed to make the decision, and at one point were against the donation.
“Joanne knew what Steven wanted,” Reese said. “Once we educated the family, the right choice was made.”
Hoffman said that in Simpson’s spirit, his sense of giving was an asset to Truckee.
“He never stopped giving,” she said.
Hoffman and Simpson met during the 1982 Christmas holidays in Sacramento. They fell in love and moved in together the following year and had been together ever since. The moved to Truckee in 1992 for the small town solitude and quiet, and Hoffman said they both found their peace.
They both immersed themselves in the community as business owners, Simpson with Reliable Snow Removal and Hoffman with Art Truckee.
“Steven was a hero during last year’s floods,” she said. “He protected so much property and never asked for a dime. He took care of anyone who needed help.”
She added that Simpson helped people who really needed it, whether it was with financial assistance or manual labor. She said she is most thankful for his help with her sister Patsy, who was born brain damaged.
“He was the only one who could communicate with her,” Hoffman said. “She (Patsy) called him Hoho, because he played Santa at the nursing home once. They understood each other so well.”
Just before Hoffman’s father died, Simpson built a handicapped facility at the her mother’s home in Clarksburg so Patsy could come home. Whether Patsy was in a facility or at home, Simpson visited her everyday. Hoffman said her father could finally let go and pass on knowing there was care for her sister and mother. He died the same year.
He also cared for Hoffman’s two sons, Darren, 20, and Erik, 23. She said her sons remember Simpson as “their teacher.” She said they weren’t the only ones who learned a lesson or two from him.
“He would go around fixing things for our neighbors,” she said. “I think most of his friends were older, because he always anticipated taking care of them some day and he said he wanted to get to know them well.”
Although Simpson and Hoffman agreed not to exchange Christmas gifts this year, Simpson had already bought Hoffman gifts before the holiday. Simpson said she received the wrapped gifts after the holidays thanks to Anna Mertl.
Simpson’s gifts to the community are too many to number, and his gifts to the organ recipients are an additional step.
Hoffman said she is hopeful to meet the recipients when the time is right.
“I really want them to know about Steven,” she said. “He was an extraordinary person.”
She said she is planning a memorial picnic this summer and said she wants to invite the recipients.
“I know he loved my Japanese cooking,” she said. “Maybe in some way he will enjoy them again through the people his life touched. I know that sounds funny, but it’s something I want to share with the others.”
Hoffman said she wanted to thank his best friends for lending support through to the end of Simpson’s life – John and Stephanie McCormick, Jack and Flo Olsen, Don and Phyllis Purdy and Anna and Fritz Mertl.
She added Reliable Snow Removal will continue to clear snow from the Donner Lake neighborhood.
“We already had contracts for this year,” she said. “I know Steven wouldn’t want anyone to be out a dime. He would have been upset if our service was anything but ‘reliable.’ He was a man of his word.”
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