A Beautiful Life and a Generous Soul still saving lives today

Written by Melissa McQueen

In observance of DonateLife’s National DMV Appreciation Month, we wanted to highlight a stellar MVD employee who encourages organ donation awareness in their local MVD branch.  With the help of Julia Young, Donor Network of Arizona’s ADOT MVD Specialist, we found a champion of donation and a donor mom.  Here is her story.

My name is Sidney Duke. My son, Sam Duke, had a wonderful life and I’d like to tell you about it.  Sam was an only child, an athlete, and a musician. He had played football since he was 10 and then played all the way through varsity at his high school. He was the offensive captain in his senior year. His natural talent was music. My son was brilliant and very, very bright. And he was best in math. Music came very naturally to him, and he chose to play the drums. He was a very talented drummer. He played in the jazz band and played in some other little bands along the way. He would say that he saw math in music. After all, it was all numbers. He would say this is a quarter beat, the eighth beat, and the 16th beat. He saw music numerically. So he said that when he listened to music, he could see the numbers and the notes because there’s a beat. That was just how he thought and how his brain worked. Twenty-One Pilots was his favorite band. His favorite genre of music was alternative; he kind of turned me on to alternative music. He had worked at PetSmart as a call center rep, and he had the cutest little dog named Bingo. He had a wonderful girlfriend that he lived with. She had a little boy, so my son had the opportunity to be kind of a stepdad for a short period. 

Sam was a world traveler. He and my dad traveled everywhere. They went down the Amazon River, rafting down the Grand Canyon for a week, to Washington, DC, and California, where they rode roller coasters. He was really close to his grandpa, and family was important. Because he was an only child, he gravitated towards that big fantasy family, and his girlfriend gave him that. She was one of four. He would spend some holidays with her and get a chance to have that family experience. He was close to my brother and his cousins in California. He was just a great kid. He was smart and had a good sense of humor, and he had good friends. He always encouraged people. He inspired a couple of football players to continue to play football after high school. He left his mark on a lot of people. He used to play magic cards, and he would play Pokemon. He was the beginning part of that gaming generation and would have loved the gaming scene right now. He was an athlete and loved sports of all kinds. Football, basketball, he loved basketball and would have been just out of his mind with the Phoenix Suns going to the finals. He loved watching mixed martial arts and tennis. He absolutely loved the Olympics. He was an avid sports fan. 

Sam passed away on April 2 of 2016. My son would have been 26 today. He had signed up to be a donor when he got his driver’s license. When we were approached in the hospital, we knew that there wouldn’t be any hope for Sam to survive. And when they told us that he only had about 17% brain function and that he wouldn’t be able to live off of the ventilator. We made the decision to have him removed from the ventilator. And at that point, Donor Network of Arizona approached us and asked if we are aware of whether or not our son had signed up to be a donor. We knew that he had because my husband had taken him to the motor vehicle, and he had the little red heart on his ID and on his driver’s license. So he said, absolutely, that’s what he wanted.

Donor Network was great. They assume all care for about 48 hours while they lined up their transplant recipients. And we had Sam removed in the afternoon at six o’clock or so, we had his ventilator removed on April 2, and he passed about 35 minutes later. They were able to recover his lungs, his kidneys, and his corneas. We wanted Sam to be treated with dignity and respect, and they did exactly that. We received a phone call later that evening after we had gone home, and we were informed that the recovery had gone very successfully and that his donation was on its way to save other people’s lives. A young lady received both lungs, and another had received one of his kidneys, and, I believe, a gentleman received the other kidney. I believe the corneas went to two separate people.

We did what we needed to do to get through it; Sam was our only child. He was 21 years old and just getting started with life. He had so much to look forward to. We were devastated and heartbroken. We trudged along for several months and right before Thanksgiving, which was our first Thanksgiving without Sam, I started to think about the recipients. Thanksgiving, it’s my favorite holiday, and I always try to think about what I could be grateful for. It suddenly occurred to me that other families were celebrating with their loved ones. And we’re so incredibly grateful for Thanksgiving because of Sam’s donation and Sam’s gift. And so it made a very hard Thanksgiving a little easier to bear. The next day, my husband and I went to Rocky Point just to get away. I told my husband this is our retreat to try to continue to heal, and I want to write our letters, I need to write our letters, because I need to let them know about Sam.

We wrote our letters and sent them out. And we received a letter back from Sam’s double lung recipient. It was pretty quick, but to me, it felt like a lifetime. I can remember going to some events for Donor Network and looking at people and seeing other recipients and thinking, “is that the recipient that got my son’s lungs?” I needed to know that there was a part of Sam that was still alive. It was around Sam’s birthday, and it was his first or second birthday in heaven, when I was just dying inside because I needed to know.  

I didn’t need them to thank me, I didn’t need them to know anything or do anything. I just needed to see that they were alive and doing well, and that a piece of my son was still alive. When we got that letter from his double lung recipient, we started corresponding with her, and eventually were able to meet her in person on St. Patrick’s Day, two full years after Sam had passed. She’s fantastic! She talked about how grateful her mother was of Sam’s gift. We compared stories and her daughter was on a ventilator and close to death at the exact same time. She had cystic fibrosis and had gotten sick very suddenly and unexpectedly. Her lungs just gave up; they just stopped altogether. There was no way of reversing what the cystic fibrosis had done to her lungs. If she hadn’t had a double lung transplant when she did, she would have died. What they went through was similar to what we were going through, with everybody praying for life. We were praying on our end that there would be a miracle.  We’ve listened to that. People would go without oxygen for so long and would miraculously be restored and have normal lives. And I understand that they prayed that their daughter would be restored to good health as well. We all were praying for a miracle, our family, her family. We then learned from the other two kidney recipients that those families had prayed for a miracle too. And we all got that miracle. We’ve received it. We just got it a different way. We were fortunate enough to meet Sam’s left kidney. She lives here in Phoenix. We’ve seen her multiple times, and I correspond with her and text with her.

The miracle that we wanted was to have Sam restored, but God gave us the miracle that we needed, and the miracle that other people needed. And it took us a while to understand that we fully embrace it. Miracles happened that night.

I understand organ donation is a very personal decision. I feel he made an excellent decision the day he checked that box at the MVD.  We want to know how our recipients are doing. It’s vital to us because it just solidifies the fact that Sam’s life mattered. 

I’m very passionate about organ donation. And as an MVD agent, I found myself working in a hospital when Sam was alive. When Sam passed, I knew that I wasn’t going to work at the level I had been working at before because I was done. I was alive one minute, but not physically, but spiritually and mentally, and emotionally. I had to recreate myself all over again. I had to figure out what I wanted to do, and I took some time to heal. It’s just an ongoing process.

I stumbled upon the job at a motor vehicle division, which wasn’t my original field. It’s nothing I’ve ever done before. But the minute I got I came inside the Scottsdale motor vehicle department and sat down to fill out the paperwork; I saw the Donate Life posters surrounding me. I had been volunteering for Donate Life, but when I got to motor vehicles, I’m like, Oh my god, it’s everywhere. Is this where Sam is guiding me? I’m always looking for those little signs from him that tell me that I’m doing the right thing and that he’s watching over me and proud of me. It’s important that my son can look down and go, I know you’re hurting, mom, but I’m so proud of you. That is what helps me get up every morning.  I can be a voice for donation.  I get to ask that question many times a day, “Do you want to sign up to be an organ donor?” And some people say yes. Other people say no. Still, I have had the opportunity to share my family’s story with some people. I have talked to a couple of teens who don’t understand it, and I get to explain it to them. I have found that most teenagers are exactly how my son was; I’m going to be dead, so what will I do with them anyway?

I think it’s essential that they have accurate information; they’re free to choose and have their own belief systems. But if it’s something like, “the doctor won’t save me if they know I’m an organ donor,” I gently correct them and tell them the doctors and first responders are there for you first. That’s what they’re in the business to do is to save lives, whether or not you’re an organ donor. I help, hopefully, re-educate some people to give them better information so they can make the best decision for themselves. I’m just grateful that I get the opportunity to do this. I have two extraordinary young ladies out there that I call my daughters in life because Sam was able to give life!

We miss him desperately. But we know he’s around and watching over us. He’s that beautiful sunset that I see. And the beautiful moon that I see at night. He’s everything beautiful that I see and that other people see as well.  Sam continues to make the world a better place. Not just by the donation but by the memory and the lives he touched outside of donation. His positivity and his willingness to help others.  

Julia Young of Donor Network Arizona adds, “Registering as a donor is an act of generosity. More than 95% of new donor registrations come from ADOT MVD transactions. Whether through their online services or by checking the box when visiting an MVD in person, Arizonans are expressing generosity and saving lives thanks to the strong partnership between DNA and ADOT MVD.”