T.J. Schreiner, with his fiery red hair and bright blue eyes, loved life.
“He lived every moment to the fullest,” his mom, Kim Shanks, said. “He was a risk-taker. He was a true friend.”
And even in his death, the 22-year-old Billings native gave life or health to 35 other people. Schreiner, a volunteer organ donor, was fatally injured in a single-vehicle crash on his way home from North Dakota to Billings for Christmas in 2013.
Initially taken to Holy Rosary Hospital in Miles City, near where the rollover occurred, Schreiner was flown to St. Vincent Healthcare, where he died.
As tragic as that was, Shanks didn’t hesitate to agree to her son’s wish that his organs and tissue be shared with people around the world. Recipients live as close as Washington state and as far away as Saudi Arabia.
Shanks met face-to-face with the man who was given her son’s liver. She wrote to others and heard back from them about the impact T.J.'s donations had in their lives.
“These people, they’re T.J.’s legacy,” Shanks said.
T.J.’s donation is just one example of the work St. Vincent does in regard to organ and tissue donation. Last week, the hospital was named Hospital of the Year by LifeNet Health's Pacific Northwest office, the nonprofit organization that works with hospitals and patients’ families to recover, prepare and distribute tissue donations.
Much of the tissue retrieved at St. Vincent remain in the Billings area, said Levi Anderson, general manager of LifeNet Health for the Pacific Northwest.
"We are dedicated to insuring the community from where we recover donations are fully covered," he said.
“Together we have worked to increase awareness and education among its (St. V) staff to encourage a culture of donation throughout the facility,” Anderson said.
LifeNet Health has an office in Billings, which allows technicians to be quickly available when a donation becomes available, Anderson said.
“Tissue donation is extremely time-sensitive,” he said. “We have a very short period of time to get the clinical information, talk with the family and get consent. To have a surgical team on site is essential.”
Many people don’t understand the difference between organ and tissue donation, said Penny Clifton, registered nurse at St. Vincent and Donate Life SVH chair. The former includes such organ donations as the heart, lungs, kidney and liver.
The most recognized tissue donations include tendon grafts for knee replacement, arteries and valves for open heart surgery and skin grafts for people recovering from burns, as well as corneas, Clifton said.
“A lot of them are frozen or reprocessed,” she said. “We use dozens of those products here every day.”
When a patient in the intensive care unit becomes a suitable donor, they are kept alive on a ventilator until all the details of the organ donations are in place. Surgeons from the recipient hospital will arrive at the hospital, take delivery of the organ and return home for transplant surgery.
For tissue donations, the work is done after the patient has been taken off the ventilator and the heart has stopped. Sometimes the same organization that recovers the organs also handles the tissue.
Other times, it's handled by two different groups. Because a tissue team is in place in an office adjacent to St. Vincent, that part of the donation process can go more quickly, Clifton said.
When people designate on their driver’s licenses their desire to be donors, it includes both organs and tissue donations, Clifton said.
“Every person who expires at St. Vincent Healthcare is called into the donor referral line,” she said. “That’s a national rule.”
If that person is deemed to be an organ/tissue donor, the donor agency contacts the patient’s family to let them know the patient’s wish.
More Montanans are signed up to be organ donors per capita than any other state, Clifton said. That’s one reason why the hospital’s Donate Life Council has worked to improve dialogue between family members, so that information is known well in advance.
The council also makes sure communication is in place between the departments involved in the donation process, the donor collection sites and the families. The goal is to make the process as easy as possible in an impossibly difficult time.
Shanks remembers the night she learned her son was being transported to St. Vincent in critical condition. She and her husband, Matt Shanks, quickly went to the hospital.
“Shortly after T.J.'s arrival we were taken into a private waiting room and we were told that he would not survive,” she said. “His injuries were too great to fix.”
A donation coordinator spoke with the family about T.J.’s desire to be a donor. The family then sat down to discuss what exactly to donate.
“When we were presented the list of options, we decided we would donate everything we possibly could,” Shanks said.
She didn’t know her son had signed up to be a donor. But Shanks wasn’t surprised.
“He would give you the shirt off his back,” she said. “He had a tendency to be friendly to people who had difficult pasts because he wanted to help them, to show them a better way and help them see better choices.”
A 2010 graduate of Billings Senior High, T.J. enlisted in the Army after high school. After two years, he was honorably discharged and then went to work for his great-uncle’s construction company in Dickinson, North Dakota.
Then came the drive on icy roads that caused T.J. to over-correct his pickup, which then rolled. T.J., who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the truck.
Shanks grew emotional talking about the impact his donation had on the lives of others. In the moment when the heart and lungs, kidneys, tissue and bone were sent out, “they were just parts,” she said.
“And then I wrote a letter to the recipients and started receiving letters, and those parts turned into people,” she said. “People with families and friends and lives, and it just made it so real, the impact of one person’s donations on not only the person getting them but on their whole family.”
She talked about the liver recipient, a man in Washington, who traveled to Billings to pay his respects to T.J.'s family. Since then, Shanks and her family has connected with more of the man's family.
"They're so grateful for him still being there," she said. "He's got great grandkids and he's able to enjoy them because of T.J.'s gift."