Stephanie Edwards of Coila and her husband, Shane, take in the Wall of Heroes ceremony. Stephanie's daughter, Abbie O'Cain, was an organ donor.
Stephanie Edwards of Coila and her husband, Shane, take in the Wall of Heroes ceremony. Stephanie's daughter, Abbie O'Cain, was an organ donor.
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From tragedy, life: Organ donors give ultimate gift

Published on Monday, November 11, 2019

By: Ruth Cummins

In life and in death, 13 was Abbie O'Cain's lucky number.

As a 12-year-old sixth-grader and cheerleader at Carroll Academy in Carrollton, she won the crown for “Most Beautiful.” Her contestant number, mom Stephanie Edwards said, was 13.

Thirteen days before a brain aneurysm took Abbie’s life, she had been baptized. At her funeral, “13 people were saved,” Edwards said. “The reading was 1 Corinthians 13:13 .. Faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”

Portrait of Abbie O'Cain

Just a week after earning her crown, Abbie died March 30, 2019, at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Batson Children’s Hospital. When it came time to say goodbye to Abbie, Stephanie Edwards said, choosing to donate her organs wasn’t the hard part.

“As a mother, I never knew I would have to make that decision with my child, although I knew I wanted to donate mine,” she said.

“It’s such a special gift.”

Those who make that same difficult decision in the midst of traumatic grief have extended the lives of many receiving transplants at the Medical Center and in surrounding states.

A standing-room only crowd attended Friday's Wall of Heroes ceremony.
A standing-room-only crowd attends Friday's Wall of Heroes ceremony.

Donors young and old are represented by their photos on a Wall of Heroes. One is located at UMMC’s University Hospital, and a second one is in the Children’s Hospital. A collaborative effort of UMMC, the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency and the Mississippi Lions Eye Bank, the memorial displays are a tribute to honor patients who gave the final gift of organ, eye or tissue donation.

Abbie’s name, along with those of dozens more adult and child donors, were recited Friday during the annual Wall of Heroes recognition ceremony at UMMC’s Chapel. “It’s one small way that we can show our gratitude and honor them for the heroes they are,” said Kellie Wier, MORA’s director of hospital development.

The need for organ donation is great. As of Oct. 28, 170 organs had been transplanted in 2019 at UMMC, the state’s only transplant center. Of that number, 110 were kidneys; eight, pancreas; 38, liver; and 14, heart.

Another 1,300-plus Mississippi residents await a transplant, and the national waiting list is more than 114,000. Nationally, an average 20 people die each day while waiting for an organ, and a new person is added to the transplant waiting list every 10 minutes.

Gina Smith describes the loss of her daughter Carmen, an organ donor.
Gina Smith describes the loss of her daughter, Carmen, an organ donor.

One organ donor can save eight lives, and one tissue and eye donor can improve the lives of 50 or more.

“She saved four lives with the donation of five organs, and one person was lucky enough to get two of them,” Gina Smith of Louisville said of her daughter Carmen, who died in 2015 at age 12 after suffering a traumatic brain injury.

A talented barrel racer, Carmen was in Jackson for a competition when she took a tumble at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds and landed on concrete. She was treated at UMMC’s Emergency Department and admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit, but her condition deteriorated. “I knew in my heart that if Carmen could help other people with the organs she didn’t need, she would want to do that,” her mom said.

Donor heart recipient Timothy Lewis speaks at the Wall of Heroes ceremony. Five years ago, he received the heart of an 18-year old.
Timothy Lewis, a donor heart recipient, speaks at the Wall of Heroes ceremony.

Timothy Lewis of Jackson knows what it feels like from the other side. Almost six years ago, near death from end-stage heart failure, Lewis received the heart of an 18-year-old young man whose family, in their most painful moments, made that gift of life.

Today, Lewis pays it forward as a Medical Center volunteer, spending much of his time ministering to patients who just received a new organ or who continue to wait. “I will walk this journey with them,” Lewis said. “I have been the one lying in that bed.”

Know that your loved one’s photo on the Wall of Heroes won’t be forgotten, but instead will be seen by thousands of visitors and patients at UMMC, Lewis told donor families who were part of the overflow crowd Friday. “They are beautiful superheroes who had an immense effect on generations and communities,” he said.

Jordan Mathews, an organ donor at age 21, began playing baseball at age 6.

Twenty-six people at the ceremony, from arm babies to senior citizens, wore identical T-shirts in memory of Jordan Mathews, a 21-year-old baseball star and rising senior at Tougaloo College. Just days before his death in August following an asthma attack, Jordan was preparing to sign a contract to play minor league ball for the Atlanta Braves, said his mom, Sheila Kidd.

A family entourage that also included his grandmother, his sister and a plethora of aunts, uncles and cousins drove almost five hours, in a total eight vehicles, from Sylacauga, Ala., to see Jordan’s photo unveiled on the Wall of Heroes.

Her son was a community volunteer, worked in his church audiovisual ministry, and had played baseball since he was 6, Kidd said. “He did so much,” she said

“On his driver’s license, he had that little heart,” Kidd said of the symbol designating the license holder as an organ donor. “I wanted to honor his wishes.”

John Marc O'Cain changed his jersey number to his sister's lucky number 13 for the 2019 football season at Carroll Academy.
John Marc O'Cain changed his Carroll Academy jersey number to his sister's lucky number - 13 - for the 2019 football season.

Abbie’s brother, John Marc O’Cain, didn’t make it to the Wall of Heroes ceremony. The starting junior fullback and linebacker for the Carroll Academy Rebels was preparing for that night’s second-round playoff game against Sylva-Bay Academy. He and Abbie, who killed her first buck earlier this year, had an unbreakable bond.

This fall, John Marc is playing with a new number on his jersey.