Dolores Cadwallader grieves her son Nathan Cadwallader, 17 who died attempting to cross Highway 62 near Delta Waters Road. Nathanís family agreed to allow doctors to donate his organs to save other lives. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell

The Living Gift Of Nathan Cadwallader

As Dolores Cadwallader continues to grieve the untimely death of her youngest son, she hopes the tragedy can send a message of hope and inspiration to others.

Nathan Cadwallader was 17 last July when he attempted to dash across seven lanes of Highway 62 near Delta Waters Road and was struck by a large, white pickup.

"He misjudged the traffic," said Cadwallader. "It was an accident — a mistake that cost him his life."

The North Medford High School student sustained a sharp blow to the head in the July 14 crash and was rushed to Providence Medford Medical Center, where he spent nearly a week in a coma.

Nathan's stepmother said although his body began to heal, his brain didn't improve.

"By the time he passed away, there wasn't a mark on him. He was Nathan," said Cadwallader, who helped raise him since he was a baby.

Cadwallader said that after six days at the hospital, Nathan was declared legally dead. She and Nathan's father, Keith, were approached by hospital staff, who asked whether they'd be willing to donate their son's organs.

Before his death, Cadwallader said, Nathan had seen her driver's license, on which she declared herself an organ donor, and expressed his own interest in being a registered donor.

With this in mind, the family agreed to allow doctors to harvest Nathan's organs.

Transplant facilitators from the Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank hopped on a plane from Portland to Medford to meet the Cadwalladers and rush Nathan's organs to those in need.

"We donated as much as we could of Nathan," said Cadwallader. "And out of the tragedy, he was able to save three lives, or make their quality of life better. It's amazing."

The decision to donate Nathan's organs was an immeasurable gift, said Mike Seely, the executive director of the PNTB.

"One person who donates can make the difference in the lives of seven people," said Seely. "It's a legacy."

Nathan's liver and each of his kidneys were donated to three people, all likely on transplant lists in the Pacific Northwest.

"He was able to give life because he lost his," said Cadwallader. "Parts of him are still around here, helping people."

Nathan's trachea was donated to medical researchers, and Cadwallader said other organs may have been donated as well, but the family hasn't received any details about their use.

About 114,000 people are on the national transplant waiting list, which matches donors to recipients based on blood and tissue type, body size, geographic location and the patient's medical urgency.

While it's likely that Nathan's organs stayed in the Pacific Northwest, the PNTB works with a national registry of recipients, and organs sometimes travel outside the region based on medical urgency, Seely said.

"The system is very well thought out," said Seely. "We decide what the best use is, and what's fair."

Nathan was one of 87 deceased organ donors in Oregon, southwest Washington and northern Idaho in 2011. His liver and kidneys were among 287 organs donated in the region overall.

Cadwallader said the family, including Nathan's three older siblings, has received constant support from the PNTB staff, which held a reception for the families of recent donors earlier this year.

"The organization is fantastic," said Cadwallader, looking through a box of keepsakes sent by the group to help families work through their losses.

The box includes a green wristband with the words "Donate Life" in both English and Spanish written on it. Cadwallader said the bracelet was particularly meaningful, as Nathan's favorite color was green and he was bilingual.

The organization sent the Cadwalladers some general information about the recipients of Nathan's organs, but kept their names private.

Earlier this year, the family received an anonymous thank-you letter from the recipient of Nathan's liver, a married 58-year-old man who had a liver disease.

"I have been extremely blessed with a second chance by a person who cared enough to donate a gift of life so unconditionally," the letter reads. "I am an Army veteran, but I salute the donor, because I feel the donor is my hero."

Cadwallader said Nathan's father read the letter when the family received it earlier this year, but she hadn't brought herself to actually look at it until last week, just after the anniversary of Nathan's death.

"I cried my eyes out," said Cadwallader. "For him to say that Nathan is his hero is very touching to me."

Cadwallader said Nathan's dad is a veteran also.

If she chooses, Cadwallader can continue corresponding with the recipient through the PNTB.

"We're the conduit between the anonymous exchange of communication between donors and recipients," said Seely. "It has to be done very thoughtfully."

After Nathan's accident, Cadwallader worried that people would remember him only for his mistake in running across the highway, not the way in which his organs were able to help others.

"I always say he was the one who gave to save," said Cadwallader.

Seely said the decision to designate yourself as an organ donor can be one of the most important choices a person makes.

"It's the most magnanimous thing a person can do, to think beyond themselves," said Seely. "The most important thing people can do is make this decision."

Cadwallader said the family was in the process of moving from Medford to Central Point when Nathan died, so many of his belongings were already packed into boxes.

At the time the accident happened, Cadwallader had been at Costco in Medford, just a few hundred yards away.

"It was such a strange day," said Cadwallader, who was picking up supplies with a co-worker for a pre-school where she teaches.

She said the two must have driven down a different route when they left, because she didn't know about the crash until she arrived home and a got a phone call that Nathan was being loaded into an ambulance.

She and her husband have yet to return to the spot the accident occurred, Cadwallader said.

"We just avoid that area of town," said Cadwallader, who took an alternate route around the intersection for a trip to Lost Creek Lake. "We completely go all the way around."

Cadwallader said she hopes her son's death can offer inspiration for others to become organ donors.

"If it gives life and helps someone," said Cadwallader. "Then why not?"

Cadwallader said she was able to find comfort in knowing that Nathan had expressed an interest in wanting to be an organ donor prior to his death. But many families are unaware of their loved one's wishes, according to Mary Jane Hunt, executive director of Donate Life Northwest, an outreach organization that works with the PNTB.

"It's so much easier to know the wishes of your loved ones," said Hunt, who encourages people to register and tell their family of their intent to be an organ donor.

Hunt said that even if a person isn't designated an organ donor, the PNTB will still ask the family for permission to harvest their organs, but the decision can be stressful for grieving families.

"It's a life-enhancing gift," said Hunt. "People don't realize how important and substantial their gift can be."

Cadwallader said as she works through her grieving process, she may one day return to the intersection where her son was hit, but she isn't ready yet.

"Someday we'll go back there. It's just time," said Cadwallader. "Right now, every step is a step without Nate."

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or

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