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An Outdoor Lover’s Legacy Lives on Through Tissue and Cornea Donation

My name is Susan Karnitz and as a registered nurse, I’ve always been interested in donation. I have seen families of both recipients and donors find hope through donation.

I never expected to experience my own tragedy that would lead to donation. In July 2019, I received a call at work that my 11-year-old son Caleb had been in an ATV accident.

Caleb’s personality was huge; he almost always had a smile on his face and was well loved by family, friends and anyone who met him. Caleb was on the Autism spectrum, and as a child he struggled to communicate. However, with support and structure, he was able to make much progress in his communication skills and development. His passion was fishing and being on the water. Being outdoors was his happy place and was therapeutic for him.  

Caleb, in boat with fishing pole smiles brightly at the camera.

On the day of the accident, he had been riding 4-wheelers with my husband and daughter at my parents’ farm outside of Litchfield. They were getting ready to pack up and head home, when Caleb wanted to take one more ride around the property. He headed out and didn’t return. He was found down the road with the ATV overturned onto his body. CPR was performed, and EMS arrived to stabilize him. Life Link was called to the scene and airlifted Caleb to St. Cloud Hospital, as it was the nearest trauma facility. Caleb did not survive his injuries. Initially, my husband and I wanted to pursue organ donation but were told Caleb did not qualify due to his extensive injuries and time unknown without oxygen.

We later received a call at home from LifeSource informing us that Caleb could be a cornea and tissue donation. We felt a sense of relief because we knew that Caleb would want to help others.  We felt a sense of peace and healing knowing that others could live a fuller life due to Caleb’s gifts. Caleb donated his 2 corneas, heart values and tissue.

We received wonderful support and care from the LifeSource team. We were able to have a traditional funeral, with an open casket, and were provided with an initial support kit, bracelets, and pins to hand out to family and friends. To this day, I still wear my Donate Life bracelet because it honors Caleb’s life and gifts.

In addition, we received personal updates from our LifeSource Donor Family Advocate on Caleb’s donations. We learned that his corneas went to a man in Texas and a 14-year-old in Texas. His heart valves went to a man in Michigan. In follow-up, we received a letter from Garry in Texas, who received Caleb’s cornea. Garry shared with us how he is living a fuller life because of restored vision and is able to spend time with his family fishing and doing the things he loves. We keep in contact with Garry and his family and hope to meet them someday in person.

We have attended candle lighting remembrance ceremonies and have stayed connected to the LifeSource team through Facebook support groups and the Ambassador group. I credit the LifeSource team and donation for helping in my grief and healing process. Knowing that part of Caleb has lived on in others is so comforting, in the wake of this tragedy.

Caleb, wearing sunglasses smiles at camera while holding catch of the day.

We have also started a non-profit in Caleb’s memory, Casting with Caleb, where we take kids with special needs on fishing adventures.

“The gift of organ and tissue donation leaves a living legacy. I would encourage everyone to register to be an organ and tissue donor. Having that designation helps your family and caregivers understand your wishes and takes away any unnecessary stress and decision making.”

– Susan Karnitz, Registered Nurse and Donor Mother