Mitchell, a boy with all-American looks, died in an accident west of Abilene on Dec. 19, 2010. His legacy continues because when he had obtained his driver’s license he had agreed to be an organ donor. When he died he had not been drinking or taking any drugs and as a result vital organs, tissues and other essential body parts could be preserved.
A family’s worst nightmare, his parents agreed that allowing the organ donation to continue was the right thing to do as they said their goodbyes.
His survivors – father James and mother Tammy Mitchell and his siblings, Jordan, a junior, and Jewlia, a sophomore at Solomon High School – say commencement will be an emotional time, particularly with it being on Mother’s Day weekend.
Tammy says she takes comfort in knowing that her son in all likelihood helped out more than 50 people, a gift that was not out of his character.
“I think people should know the car accident was not the result of drinking alcohol or taking drugs. If he had been drinking or taking drugs they could not have used his organs in any shape or manner,” she said.
Landon had completed the donor’s instruction on the back of his driver’s license, but in the trauma that followed the accident his family had to make that decision. Less than a week after his death, the family received Landon’s personal items from the accident, among the items was a driver’s license and his parents noticed he had indicated that was his wish.
“This was a Landon-only adult decision he made,” she said. “I’m so proud of him.”
Recipients to attend
Attending Saturday’s graduation ceremony will be lung transplant recipient Jamie Hammer, 32, Crystal, Minn., and heart transplant recipient Dennis Ditsch, 63, Minneapolis, Minn.
While the Mitchells do not know where most of his donated parts went, they were comforted to know more than 50 people were assisted as they worked with the Midwest Transplant Network out of Wichita.
His generosity inspired Jewlia to start giving blood when she is 16.
“I decided to give blood to help others,” she said, a tribute to her brother who would be 19 if he was alive today.
Tammy says it is a great example of his maturity beyond his young age.
To find out what happened to an organ transplant is a lengthy process and one Tammy and her family understand. It can be hard on the recipient’s family as well as the donor family. Plus, not all transplants are successful.
About six months ago Tammy Mitchell and Hammer started communicating.
Hammer said the process involves a central clearinghouse process in which the donor and recipient family can first exchange letters on an anonymous basis. Over time the names can be divulged and families can chose to make contact. Hammer worked through the LifeSource Transplant Network.
The Mitchells on Dec. 24, 2011, called Hammer and left a voice message on her home telephone. Hammer was not at home as she was attending her church. Her pastor had asked her to talk to the congregation about what she had gone through as part of a Christmas Eve service. With information she had received from Tammy she was able to tell the congregation about a boy she had never met who had saved her life.
Information was shared via social media Facebook.
About a month ago, on Easter Sunday, Hammer and the Mitchells shared a telephone conversation.
Hammer had never smoked tobacco a day her life, but had cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease. Hammer always prided herself on taking care of herself. At one time she was a full-time recreational therapist.
In October 2010 her health took a sharp downward turn.
“I went to the hospital thinking I had a cold,” she said. “When you have cystic fibrosis you feel like you have colds all the time.”
The mucous buildup was significant, she said.
“My lungs were so damaged I could not get the mucous out as fast as it was building up.”
By Dec. 11, 2010, Hammer was put on a ventilator. Most people afflicted with cystic fibrosis get about a week to live after they are put on a ventilator. Because she had taken care of herself it bought her some additional time, but she was within days of losing her battle.
“Then an unfortunate accident in Kansas became the answer to my prayer,” she said, then paused as she was briefly overcome by emotion. “He saved my life.”
On Dec. 21, 2010, she received her lungs and a new beginning following surgery at the University of Minnesota hospital in Minneapolis. Her recovery was remarkable and in January 2011 she was released to go home.
Waiting period ends
Transplant experts advise donors and recipients to wait about a year before disclosing names but since Christmas she has credited Tammy Mitchell for seeking a reunion, one that all sides admit will be one of mixed emotions.
Jamie her husband, her three sisters and mother will accompany her. Her father will stay at home but is eager to hear about the trip when the family returns to Crystal.
As part of the activities she will award a $1,000 to a graduating senior on Saturday.
The money was generated from an outpouring of support in fund-raisers from the Crystal and Minneapolis area. A third of the money goes to cystic fibrosis research, a third to LifeSource and a third at her discretion. She chose to help other transplant families. She also opted to use some of that money to establish a scholarship in Landon’s name, which will be awarded to a senior on Saturday.
Traveling to Solomon will be an emotional journey.
“We are excited to go,” she said. “I think it is going to be a special moment. I think it will be emotional for everyone involved.’
She credited Tammy Mitchell and her family whom she said have expressed their happiness.
“I am jumping for joy but you have to understand I went through a grieving process for Landon, too,” Hammer said.
“I am doing very well,” she said. “My lungs are functioning much better. With a transplant you are going to have your ups and downs.”
She said doctors have to monitor and make adjustments with medication. She has been able to return to part-time work.
“I am living my life again,” Hammer said.
Heart transplant recipient Dennis Ditsch could feel the difference in his transplant right away. The retired Toro Company employee for 45 years had a triple bypass in 1996 and the procedure held up until 2002. He then had a pacemaker installed and experienced ups and downs over the next eight years. By 2010 his heart’s efficiency was at 10 percent to 20 percent of its capacity and he was placed on a high priority list by October 2010.
He headed to the University of Minnesota on Dec. 20 and received the transplant from Landon’s heart on Dec. 21.
“When I woke up I felt like a different man,” Ditsch said. “I used to take 20 nitros pills to keep my heart going. I had one plus in that I walked a lot and I was physically fit otherwise.”
It took Ditsch about eight months to get his medications leveled off but now that he has he has never felt better.
“I went golfing Tuesday (May 8) and the opening of fishing season in Minnesota is here,” he said, adding with a laugh that fishing was something Landon would approve of.
Surgery at same time
In an unusual twist Ditsch and Hammer were at the hospital at the same time. Ditsch’s wife, Jynene, was in the same waiting room as Hammer’s family members and it did not take them long to figure out they had the same donor. After the recovery process, Hammer contacted Jynene and the two families continued their friendship.
As the Solomon graduation neared, Hammer asked Ditsch if he was willing to make the 500-mile trip to Landon’s graduation. Ditsch said he was hesitant and needed time to think about it. He said Hammer and Tammy Mitchell understood. He remembered tossing and turning all night after he had visited with
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Hammer. The next morning he asked his wife to send a text message to Tammy and ask her if she wanted him to attend. Tammy texted back and let him know the answer was definitely yes and there would be a “truck load” of tissues for everyone.
“We’ll need them,” he said, and he remembered a short text Tammy sent Ditsch at the end of their conversation that he still gets emotional over. “My baby boy is coming home.”
Ditsch is glad he plans to attend the graduation.
“It is good for me and I know it is good for them (the Mitchells),” Ditsch said. “It will be nerve racking at first but I think it will be good for everybody.”
Emotional day ahead
James Mitchell says it is hard to talk about his son without being overwhelmed with emotion – both tears and laughs. The grieving and healing process takes time, he said.
He credits his wife and his daughters for helping him through the process.
“He (Landon) was a very talented young man,” James said. “He always had a smile and he had a knack of aggravating me.”
His son enjoyed working with his hands and besides participating in football, he loved hunting and fishing. James, an outdoorsman himself, said his son was a natural. The family lives outside of Solomon near the Smoky Hill River. Landon would be able to go out and catch a nice channel cat or get a wild turkey in season.
Before his death, his son had talked about a career as a welder and entering military service. He was a junior in high school at the time of his death.
“I sure was proud of him,” James Mitchell said.
Tammy said she enjoyed the relationship Landon and her developed.
“He was my buddy,” she said. “He could make me so mad one moment and then he’d smile and say ‘I love you mom.’
“Landon was known for three things – his hat, his smile and his boots.”
Tammy said Landon had a way of bonding with young children and older adults, who she believed loved and respected his kindness toward them that was hard to explain but easy to observe. Jordan and Jewlia said at school he had a way of reaching out to new students as well as those less popular to make them feel better about themselves.
Tammy was proudest of the fact that her son was always thinking of others and had a knack for helping others while seeking no recognition. She believes that if he was alive today he would eschew the attention.
“Blond hair, blue eyes, ornery and irritating to his sisters,” Tammy said with a smile.
The emotion ahead
Graduation is an emotional time and it impacts the Mitchells as they think about their family. For Tammy and James, besides it being their only son and for Jordan and Jewlia, their only brother, Landon’s death also was the first grandchild and the only grandson on her side of the famly. On James’ side, Landon was the first great-grandchild.
In many ways he was a first, including as an organ donor.
Tammy said she remembered one time in which Landon was dating a girl and he had found out her uncle had received a heart transplant. Tammy said that intrigued her son and he thought that was a good idea.
On the day he died, Landon had spent much of the day with Jordan in Salina.
“We had never really hung out much together until that day,” Jordan said. “We were both bored and needed to do something to get out of the house.”
She looks back on the day and can smile a bit. Jordan and her sister both snickered as they thought about memories of an older brother who used to tease them, be an instigator and a good listener. Jewlia could remember hunting and fishing with her brother. Landon and Jordan both looked out for Jewlia, the youngest, Tammy said.
As the family members are coping and rebuilding their lives, Landon’s friends have been a welcome part of that process. They continue to play an active part in Jordan and Jewlia’s lives.
Even though Landon died 1 1/2 years ago, all four of the Mitchells agreed there is not a day that goes by they do not think of him.
“You never forget about someone that close to you,” Tammy said.
“Graduation, birthdays, anniversaries any number of things,” James said. “I miss him.”
“I think it opened our eyes that anything can happen and not to take life for granted,” Jewlia said.
As Tammy thinks about Saturday she is glad she reached out to Hammer and is glad that Hammer and Ditsch could make time to travel to what would be Landon’s graduation.
“It will not just be the four of us (the Mitchells),” she said. “There are grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends. It was not just the four of us affected by Landon’s death.”
The four Mitchells are not sure yet how they will react, knowing there will be a sense of joy and pride and some sadness. Having Hammer and Ditsch there will help the family, they all agreed.
“I would have been proud of him no matter what,” she said. “Landon was easy to be around. He was always happy and I know he would want us to be happy.”
She believes her son will be enjoying the day in spirit with the family. His willingness to perform the selfless act of making an organ donation will provide tangible proof of his kindness. Still, she summed up the feelings of her family.
“If he was here he’d say, I’m not a hero, I’m just Landon,” Tammy said.