Deadly Crash, String of Organ Donations Connect Families

Organ recipient's letter to donor's family makes heartbroken mother reconsider suicide

There’s a place on U.S. Highway 96, just outside Lumberton, Texas that Dawn and Michael Sterling pass nearly every week. It's a spot where life as they knew it changed on Feb. 3, 2014.

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Michael was the only one not inside the family's Nissan SUV when it was hit by a sports car that investigators estimate was traveling over 100 mph.

His wife, Dawn, was badly injured and knocked unconscious. His 20-year-old daughter, Connely, and her unborn child were killed at the scene. His 15-year-old daughter, Courtney, suffered catastrophic injuries that left her brain dead.

“That’s when it really sank in,” Michael said, holding back tears.

At that moment, the decision to donate his 15-year-old daughter’s organs fell to him alone. Michael agreed and within hours Courtney’s liver had already saved a life hundreds of miles away in Dallas.

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An organ donation from Courtney Sterling, right, saved five lives. Courtney and her sister Connely were killed a car crash in February 2014.

“I remember getting the phone call in the hospital. They said, 'I just want to let you know we have a liver for your wife,'” Reid Barker said.

Reid’s wife, Lisa, was just hours from death after a rare liver disease she previously was unaware of had ravaged her body.

“My only chance for survival was going to be a liver transplant from a deceased donor,” Lisa said.

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Lisa Barker, inset, after a life-saving liver transplant. Background, Barker in the hospital prior to receiving the donated organ.

In the months after the transplant that saved her life, Lisa thought often about reaching out to the family she’d never met. She eventually wrote them a letter.

“I was so at peace. If I never heard back, I just want them to know we are grateful -- that’s what was so huge to me,” Lisa said.

What Lisa didn’t realize was just how large an impact that letter would have.

“I had found a bridge I was going to drive off of. Lisa’s letter came three days before the day I was going to do that,” Dawn said.

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Dawn Sterling, inset, said a letter sent by the woman who received her daughter's liver saved her life.

In the months that followed, the two families met for the first time and eventually struck up a close friendship. In all, Courtney’s organs would go on to improve, or save, the lives of five different people.

And for Reid, the inspiration of the gift his wife had received was something he thought of often.

“In that moment of receiving that greatest gift, you’re either going to hold onto it and just keep it to you or use that blessing that other people gave and live it out,” Reid said.

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Reid Barker, standing, and Jon Putnam.

A teacher with Frisco ISD, Reid would soon meet a fellow teacher named Jon Putnam who, as fate had it, would soon go into kidney failure for the second time.

“This was a very unique situation. I don’t know if you’ll ever see one like this again,” Jon said.

Quickly after learning that Jon was in need of a kidney, Reid reached out and offered his. After testing determined they were a match, Reid and Jon went through the hours-long procedure.

“He gave our life back to us, our kids, everybody. My parents, in-laws, all my family friends, it extended my time with them,” Jon said.

For the Michael and Dawn, the positive ripple effect triggered by the tragedy of losing their children is something they think about often.

“Life is beautiful,” Michael said.

“Life is beautiful even when you deal with a loss like this. If you’re going through a tragedy and can save another life, I highly suggest it,” Dawn said.

To register to be an organ donor, go to donatelife.net.

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