By: Karla Jensen
Whoever said “We are not a body with a soul, but a soul with a body,” must have known Emily Lyons. This was a gal with soul, spirit, energy, and a presence no matter where she went. Emily was a convertible with the top down, versatile in academics, athletics and alliances. Her style, humor, character and drive synchronized to generate true alignment; loving daughter and granddaughter, devoted friend, amazing sibling, respected student, even homecoming queen and finally, dedicated college student.
A heartbreaking accident produced an additional title; organ donor. A title Emily chose, and that many choose or avoid at the DMV when we receive or renew our own driver’s licenses. Choosing to be an organ donor involves weighing the benefits – offering life to another – against facing one’s fears despite our inevitable demise.
At 19, Emily pursued her dream as a college student studying Biology at UW LaCrosse, preparing to be an optometrist. The love of her life, Sam, romanced her. She found an extended family in Sam and his parents, Tim and Jenny White, and Sam’s sibling Elida. Emily’s dad Mike Lyons supported her, along with her mother Dawn and stepdad Michael Wood. Her siblings Sally and Emmett missed her at college. The convertible left the garage, eager to explore new territory.
Graceful convertibles often cannot help but be noticed. They sparkle with their sleek exterior, familiarity, distinctiveness and coziness, just like Emily with her pearly smile, charming demeanor, and open confidence, although she rarely wished to be front and center. Instead, she exuded bumper-to-bumper lightheartedness, intelligence, and likeability, with a basecoat of kindness, which made her stand out furthermore, especially to those who loved her.
Emily sought to discover her purpose in life. Her choice to become an organ donor helped achieve it at a young age. A snowmobile accident caused Emily to suffer a traumatic brain injury, setting off a series of events that would save a half dozen other lives through the donation of her organs. At the hospital in Wausau, Emily’s family surrounded her. “I asked the physicians and staff not to sugar coat anything,” said Dawn Lyons-Wood, Emily’s mother. “They didn’t.” The clock was ticking, like fresh milk in a fridge, and if her healthy organs were to make a difference, they would have to be collected in quick and efficient moments. Dawn scrambled to write a letter to the potential recipients, asking them to be thankful for what they were receiving.
Because Emily would want her story to be about life and not death, the Lyons-Wood family agreed to share the intricate and fascinating process and positive outcomes from Emily’s decision to become an organ donor. Michael Wood recalled, “I was there when Em got her license. The act of signing the donor agreement was more like ‘Sure, I’ll sign it,’ but now we see how important that simple act really was.” Emily’s parents agreed that most teens and adults sign that donor card never believing that they’ll have to follow through.
The entire organ donation process proved to be surreal, albeit an emotional and incredible learning experience. According to the family, Emily’s gifts were cleared for takeoff in this order:
*Patient must be pronounced brain dead to proceed with procurement
*Hospital personnel took four to five hours to complete all tests for clearance to remove and donate organs.
*Each organ had its own team; one even came from Indiana.
*Five to six organs were harvested by the UW Organ and Tissue Donation Center.
*By 4 a.m. the morning after the final announcement, her donations were spoken for.
*Donated gifts went from patient, to hospital, to airplane, to ambulance to get organs to the appropriate recipient.
Michael Wood, Emily’s stepfather, said, “The hospital staff was very good. The UW surgical team, very patient. They answered every question in a very hard situation. They were the most big-hearted people we met.”
“We had a vigil by her bedside,” added Dawn. “The hospital never asked us to leave the room or rush. Everyone was there from aunts and uncles, grandparents, family friends to Sally’s boyfriend Spencer, the Whites and others,” said Dawn. “The ICU let us pack people in, hugging, loving and touching her. When we saw the donor teams, they looked like vultures, but we soon learned they were incredibly compassionate professionals.”
With any celebration of life, Emily’s fans and family are not shy about recalling some of the best stories and traits of their fun loving sweetheart. “Emily was the peacemaker of the family,” said Sally. “We were best friends.” Mike Lyons said, “I always called Emily ‘My Little Sunshine.’” Tim White described Emily as, “A doer. You name it – activities, clubs, sports. She was separated by her leadership ability and academics. She did so many little things for countless people with no conditions. That’s just who she was.” He also suggested Emily had “an aura about her not many possess.” Tim was honored to have delivered an eloquent eulogy for Emily at the funeral, where he coined the phrase “#emstrong.”
Tim and Jenny’s son, Sam White, was elected Homecoming King and Emily Queen in the fall of 2013, their senior year. “Dad,” said Sam. “She’s out of my league.” She was out of everyone’s league. Classy, just like that convertible. Brother Emmett described his older sister as caring, smart, generous and sometimes aggressive. “She did tell me what to do, but in a good way.” Dawn confirmed that the two were best buddies and tight siblings. Emily loved her sister Sally very much, and they were best friends and shared friendships. Sally honored her sister by wearing her prom dress in April. Grandparents Don and Judy Zimmerman adored Em and loved getting notes from her. “She had a way with words and poems. One is even framed at the lake where we hold family reunions,” said Judy. “She was so compassionate.”
Cousin Greg added, “Last time I checked, Emily was sitting at the kid’s table. I was looking forward to having her join me at the big table. Just last August, at a family reunion, I saw a totally different grown-up Emily.” Greg and other family all sensed she would be the one destined to make a difference with her genuine care and concern for others.
After Emily passed, the community united in the most constructive way possible, becoming their own super-powered engine. Friends and neighbors sought a tangible way to help the Lyons-Wood family and the family definitely welcomed the strength of others. First, the 7th grade volleyball team adopted the saying “emstrong,” and created green T-shirts (Emily’s favorite color). They chanted that they’d be Em Strong, just a little bit stronger than their opponents. They’d face their challenges on and off the court bravely, like Emily.
The UW ordered “Donate Life” wrist bracelets, sending green bracelets despite no one ordering the color green. A wonderful coincidence. A friend of Em’s also ordered #emstrong green bracelets with proceeds going to Donate Life. Twitter feed began showing hash tag EmStrong as a mantra that went viral. In a few short weeks, the Beaver Dam Varsity Baseball and Softball coaches designed T-Shirts and promised to host a special softball fundraiser, Stepping Up to the Plate. The whole town turned to wearing green in support of Emily.
Additional fundraisers shot up like dandelions. Charity Knits created green Sea Lions (as in Emily C. Lyons). The Key Club at Beaver Dam High School announced their annual talent show proceeds would benefit the Emily C. Lyons Memorial Scholarship. At the Swazz concert, they had a tribute to Emily in photos while Sally’s best friend, Becca Anderson, honored Em with a solo. Stepping Up to the Plate surpassed expectations. Plaques were donated at UW LaCrosse, a buddy bench was dedicated at Washington Elementary, and the scholarship in Em’s memory was awarded to sister Sally at Senior Awards Night.
“The scholarship night was the most meaningful,” shared Dawn, and Sally said, “Stepping Up to the Plate proved the hardest because of the overwhelming amount of people.” Jenny White added, “We all feel the tangible love of our small community . . . we are all floored by this outpouring.”
Emily’s Gifts were listed as:
Her heart was transplanted into a patient from Wisconsin who had been on the transplant waiting list since March 2014.
Her left kidney and pancreas transplanted into a patient from Michigan on waiting list since June 2014.
Her right kidney transplanted into a patient from Illinois on waiting list since May 2010.
Her liver used to save two separate recipients at a transplant center in Illinois.
Her intestine referred to a transplant center in Indiana.
With the news of Em’s liver being split into two, Sally told the story of having a special blanket with her at Emily’s hospital bedside. “I was torn between keeping the blanket or sending it to comfort Emily through surgery.” The solution? Tear it in two. That way, the love could surround them both. Later, the surgeons assured Sally that the blanket stayed with her sister the entire time and was buried with her. With two recipients receiving Emily’s liver as a gift, the family felt twice the joy at knowing yet another person lived because of Emily’s donation.
Just a week fresh into their ordeal, missing Em terribly, but praying they’d hear something soon from any recipients, the family received a letter. Their social worker sent a thank you about recipients. A couple months later, a second arrived from a male named Ryan. Neither indicated which organs anyone received. Life from death. Hope and gratitude finally materialized. Other correspondence arrived that surprised the family, including a letter from Emily’s respiratory therapist who wrote, “Serving Emily was a memorable experience. I kept her breathing and am praying for her family.” Dawn also heard through her best friend growing up that the deputy on the day of the accident requested a #Emstrong bracelet. Emily had touched his heart and she would not be forgotten.
According to donatelife.net, “Only two to three percent of people die in a manner that allows for organ donation, making it imperative that everyone who is eligible to donate actually donates.” Emily fell into this category. Thanks to her wise decision earlier, she made a difference with lasting effects. Her family has vowed to share the importance of becoming a donor.
On Facebook, Dawn replied to a post by contacting a Madison television station about experience with organ donation. Within 45 minutes she received a response, and the station sent a reporter and camera to their home. Emmett, Michael Wood, Tim White and Dawn were interviewed, telling Em’s story. “Emmett spoke eloquently,” said Dawn. “I’m anxious to see Emily’s eyes someday when I meet that recipient,” said Emmett. The reporter requested to follow Emily’s donor story.
The drivetrain of any vehicle relies on its components to act together to move the vehicle forward or backward. In the Lyons-Wood family, it’s the community support from friends, family, and even strangers who have allowed them to move forward, a drivetrain powered by #EmStrong. It is also the possibility of meeting recipients face to face someday, seeing tangible evidence of how Emily’s spirit lives on in others.
Emily is now timeless, like the classic convertible. She is an icon of Generation Z, a fabulous example of how life can be graciously shared to the benefit of others in the midst of tragedy. She has not depreciated in value, only appreciated, because Emily will continue to turn heads, especially as thankful recipients awaken to another day, take another breath, or walk in a room and find themselves experiencing life with the top down, just like Emily lived.