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These New Orleans homicide victims gave life to others

December 2, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Two days before Christmas 2017, Shannon Munster of Marrero answered her phone to tragic news. Her 20-year-old son, Tyler, had been shot.

At the hospital, Tyler’s family saw X-rays tracing the bullet’s path through his head — and learned that Tyler’s heart was still beating, but his brain activity had ceased. The family still prayed that when the life-support machines were switched off, their energetic, fun-loving Tyler would take a breath, twitch, show some sign of life.

“I told God if he was going to do a miracle, he better do it now,” Shannon Munster said. “Nothing happened.”

In accordance with Tyler’s wishes, the family opted to create a miracle for someone else and donate Tyler’s organs.

On Dec. 25, another life-altering phone call went out, but this was a call Shannon Munster likes to imagine. Using the framework of what she knows to be true, she colors in plausible details, warming herself with the joyous scene she hopes took place.

She does not know the name of the man who received Tyler’s heart or what he looks like, just that he’s in his 50s or 60s and lives in Tennessee. But in her mind, this man picks up the phone on Christmas Day and learns that he will get a renewed chance at life.

“Maybe it’s a grandfather who got to see his grandchild be born,” Shannon Munster said.

Whoever he is, whatever his circumstance, he and all the new horizons brought by Tyler’s heart extend some comfort to Shannon Munster amid the kind of grief that can swallow a parent whole. It brings her a bit of peace.

“He left on a Friday and he just didn’t come back,” she said. “But his heart is out there.”

Even a bit of peace can prove elusive in the aftermath of a family member’s murder.

Losing a loved one to homicide sets in motion an ever-present grief compounded by the torment of unanswered questions, punishing social stigmas, grueling treks through the justice system and the agony of knowing another human being decided to pull the trigger.

“With (homicide), it’s violent, it’s abrupt, it’s intentional — it didn’t have to happen,” said Holly Aldrich with the Center for Homicide Bereavement at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass. “There are really unique features of this kind of loss.”

The process of discovering a relative has been killed — from the initial phone call to formal notification by authorities to media attention — brings its own trauma, becoming seared into the minds of the grieving.

There is no “anticipatory period” to prepare for the death and often no chance to say goodbye, ask questions, or address unresolved conflicts, Aldrich said.

Adding to the trauma: death to homicide is public, said Tamara Jackson, executive director of the local anti-violence group Silence Is Violence.

Families often contend with reactions from the community and politicians, facing a “system of justification” that assumes the person killed must have been involved in crime or made other bad choices, Jackson said.

Regardless of a homicide victim’s lifestyle or past, that person’s life was taken and their death creates a hole, Jackson said.

“They were something to somebody,” she said.

In some cases, a homicide victim becomes a hero to someone.

According to Kirsten Heintz and Dana Tucker with the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA), a nonprofit that manages organ and tissue recovery and the donor registry in Louisiana, organ donations are final acts of selflessness, gifts that can reshape grim narratives.

“It’s something beautiful and positive that can come out of something tragic,” Tucker said.

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LOPA does not determine the cause or manner of death for anyone, but its donors are categorized as “suspected homicides” or “suspected child abuse” victims if, during the donation process, the police, coroner or hospital has indicated the person is likely the victim of a homicide, said Kirsten Heintz, LOPA’s director of communications.

LOPA’s suspected homicide or suspected child abuse categories do not usually include donors who have had their deaths reclassified to homicides after undergoing the organ-donation process.

Not every homicide victim is able to donate organs, a fact reflected in the small percentage of donors among those killed each year.

For the past several years, the homicide rate for New Orleans has ranged from about 155 to 175 killings per year. LOPA does not track the number of organ donors in New Orleans alone but statewide, from 2015 to 2017, LOPA saw 14 to 28 organ donors per year believed to be homicide victims.

As of late October 2018, LOPA has had 12 organ donors statewide this year whose deaths appear to result from foul play. That compares to 126 homicides in 2018 as of late October in New Orleans alone.

“It’s not because most people refuse,” said Heintz, LOPA’s director of communications. “It’s more likely due to the fact that most don’t meet (the) very specific conditions necessary for organ donation.”

A donor’s organs must still be functioning to be viable for transplant, Heintz said. For example, if the impact of a crash or a bullet causes organs to shut down, those organs cannot be donated.

Often, donors remain on ventilators but have been declared brain dead, meaning the person has suffered irreversible loss of all brain function and is clinically and legally dead. However, their organs continue to function with help from the ventilator.

It’s a circumstance that tends to result from something unexpected and tragic.

“So it’s a car wreck, it’s a stroke, it’s a brain aneurism,” Heintz said. “It’s a homicide.”

In the years before he was killed, Reginald “Cody” Wright Jr. was looking for a father figure, a search that eventually turned to the streets surrounding his Avondale home.

“His father was not a part of his life and that made it easy for him to get with the wrong people,” said his mother, Marilyn Shaw.

The 22-year-old connected with an older man in the neighborhood, a man who provided Wright with rides, marijuana and a long sought-after role model, Shaw said.

Shaw heard through word-of-mouth that Cody’s role model was involved in his early 2016 death, and that another local man fired the fatal shots. Whether or not that rumor is true, she often sees these men around her neighborhood, recurring reminders of how her son died.

She mourns the future she imagined for her only child, the goals he will not reach and the children he will never have.

Sometimes, Shaw turns to a bright spot: a letter from a man she’s never met. She’s read and re-read the pages countless times and knows she will re-read them countless more.

“Every time I read it, I sit and cry,” Shaw said.

The letter-writer is in his 60s and lives in Louisiana. Cody’s heart beats in his chest, one of seven organs donated by Cody after he was fatally shot in January 2016.

Shaw said even a brief thank-you note would have been satisfying, but the man sent pages filled with gratitude and a desire to know more about her son.

“It’s like he’s Cody’s buddy. That’s what just touched my heart,” Shaw said. “It brings so much joy to my heart every time I think about him (the recipient), every time I read his letter, every time I think about how Cody wanted to help people.”

Cody was a graduate of L.W. Higgins High School in Marrero and worked at a construction company. Shaw describes her son as a sports fan who aimed to play on an overseas football team and someday own a business.

But most of all, Cody was hardworking and big-hearted, the kind of person known to make sure those around him had a listening ear and enough to eat, she said.

“People always said the same thing, that his spirit was so beautiful,” Shaw said.

Only after his death did Shaw learn that her son gave money to the homeless, she said.

“He didn’t like to see anybody go without,” Shaw said.

Shaw last saw her son alive the morning of Jan. 24, 2016, when a red car pulled into her driveway and the horn honked. Cody left in the car, driven by a member of his role model’s crew.

About 5 p.m., a passerby found Cody shot in the 300 block of Federal Drive in Avondale, according to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. Shaw said she heard that the gunfire followed an argument between Cody and another man.

“My son went to shake hands with him because he’s a peaceful person and after they shook hands, my son turned around and that’s when he got shot in the back of the head,” Shaw said.

As of November 2018, no arrests had been made in Cody’s death or in Tyler Munster’s.

Tyler was born in Marrero but grew up mostly in Luling, where he played catcher on a baseball team and gravitated to the outdoors. In recent years, the family had moved back to Marrero, and he had completed his GED and was working with his father at an auto-painting business.

He was fast-moving and fun with a strong impulsive streak, his family said.

“He had some struggles,” Shannon Munster said, declining to go into detail.

“It’s hard enough to lose a son to begin with,” she said. “I don’t want negative attention to overshadow that he wasn’t involved in anything terrible and he wasn’t hurting anybody. At worst, he was his own worst enemy.”

Tyler was shot as he and a friend were sitting in a car parked at a gas station on Crowder Boulevard in New Orleans East.

“He was shot by a bullet that was meant for someone else,” Shannon Munster said. “The bullet went through the window and hit him in the head and he slumped over immediately.”

“No one called 911, not even the store,” she added.

Instead, the friend drove off with Tyler in the car and pulled over a few miles later when he spotted an ambulance on the side of the road.

When he was loaded into the ambulance, Tyler Munster still had a pulse, Shannon Munster said.

“His heart never stopped beating,” she said.

Both Cody Wright and Tyler Munster signed up to be organ donors while getting their Louisiana IDs, with Tyler adding the symbolic red heart to his license just a day before he was shot.

He had not signed up to be an organ donor before, but did so that day as he replaced his missing ID.

He breezily told his family, “Somebody else might as well use them. I won’t need them if I’m dead,” Shannon Munster said.

Cody signed up to be an organ donor about a year before he died, his mother said. Shaw was not pleased.

“I said you’re going to take that off your license,” she told him.

“I was raised that when you die, you take everything with you, all your organs, all in one place,” she said. “I raised my son the same way. When he told me that, I just blew up.”

However, Shaw said she had to let Cody win after he pointed out, “I’m grown, I’m 21.” He had strong feelings about becoming a donor, she said.

When an adult registers as an organ donor, that is considered giving legal consent, which means LOPA does not need additional authorization from anyone, including next of kin, to recover the donor’s organs, Heintz said.

However, the organization works very closely with donors’ families, striving to calm any concerns they may have regarding organ donation and to accommodate their wishes. For example, LOPA has worked to get relatives from afar, such as military members, in to say goodbye before recovering the donor’s organs. There is a window of time to do so, since the donation process usually takes 24 to 36 hours, beginning with blood tests and running matches.

LOPA, in turn, needs the family’s help in gaining the donor’s medical history and other pertinent information to help ensure a safe, successful transplant, Heintz said.

The organization also approaches families whose loved ones may not have registered to donate.

LOPA has “a pretty good rate” of families accepting or saying “yes” to donation, but staff often works through persistent misconceptions about organ donation, along with cultural roadblocks and varying ways in which families come to terms with losing a loved one abruptly, according to Heintz and Tucker, a family advocate for LOPA.

“Usually, when someone has registered but their next of kin is hesitant, it’s because they have not come to terms with the death,” Heintz said,

The decision of whether to donate a loved one’s organs — or whether to accept a loved one’s desire to donate — often falls amid circumstances that are already overwhelming. Still, the decision can be more complicated for some than others.

Tyler Munster’s family — his parents and two older brothers — quickly and collectively agreed to honor his wishes, a decision made easier by Shannon Munster’s experience in a medical office and the family’s faith.

“We prayed about it,” Shannon Munster said. “We felt like it was the right thing to do.”

Munster said she understands why some are reluctant to donate a relatives’ organs.

“It takes a selfless family to come together and let someone go,” she said. “For us, he had literally just signed up for that. It was a sign from above.”

Shannon Munster, now an esthetician, said she formerly worked as an assistant in a neurologist’s office and so was already familiar with the concept of brain death. She also believes that Tyler was intended to give life to others, especially after he survived a major car crash on Interstate 310 in Luling in October 2016. He was ejected from the car and airlifted to the hospital in case of internal injuries, but ultimately suffered only a gash to his knee, Shannon Munster said.

“We think he was saved for a purpose — to be there on Christmas to give his heart, his kidneys, the liver,” she said.

Two men, one from Louisiana and another from Georgia, received Tyler’s kidneys and liver.

Shaw was much more hesitant; when first approached about donating her son’s organs, she said no.

“I was just against it and very upset about it,” she said.

Organ donation tends to be taboo among the black community in particular, Shaw said, “Just the idea that your loved one is going to heaven missing parts.”

The barriers to donation sometimes give way when relatives learn more about organ donation. Sometimes, family members need a clearer explanation of brain death. Sometimes, they need a snack or sleep or a moment of quiet.

Often, they just need more time, Heintz and Tucker said.

“They didn’t push the issue and they honored how I felt about it,” Shaw said.

Her objections began to fade when a LOPA staffer said, “Tell me about Cody.”

Shaw gave LOPA her blessing to recover her son’s heart, and then the staffer asked about his lungs and kidneys.

“I went from flat-out no to seven organs,” Shaw said.

Cody’s liver went to a woman in her 40s, his pancreas to a woman in her 50s, one kidney each to a man in his 40s and another in his 50s. His lungs went to a man in his 40s, and his heart to a man in his 60s.

“My son saved six lives after he died,” she said.

Now, Shaw advocates for organ donation, speaking at LOPA events and encouraging others to sign up as donors. She is especially interested in urging other black people to donate. This mission could become part of the Cody Wright Foundation, a grassroots group Shaw began just last month to help the hurting and those in need, especially young men in search of direction and mothers grieving the loss of their children.

Munster also encourages others to give organ donation a chance and urges donors to discuss their wishes with family.

While asking Shaw and other families to donate their loved ones’ organs, LOPA strives to offer something in return.

The organization provides a lot of “memory-making” for interested families: Build-A-Bear stuffed animals with recordings of the donor’s heartbeat, engravable medallions, flags with LOPA’s “Donate Life” logo that are displayed at funerals, placed in shadowboxes, and raised on hospital flagpoles in honor of the donor. People often fill the flags with messages to the donor, forming a “collage of powerful words,” Tucker said.

When the donor is in the operating room for the organ recovery, medical staff take a “donor timeout” in which they learn about the donor. During this time, families can opt to have a favorite poem or prayer read or a beloved song played.

Shaw remembers a LOPA staffer describing how her son’s organs could make an ongoing impact.

“I said if I give you Cody’s organs, I got to have something back that I can hold onto,” Shaw said. “She was giving something back to me that I could hold onto, that legacy part.”

Shannon Munster said allowing her son to be a hero “helped in that moment, in all the chaos when he died.”

“He would’ve gotten the biggest kick out of being called a hero and having a flag raised in his honor,” she said. “Wherever his spirit was, it was satisfied.”

Organ donation can also provide a moment of calm in the life-altering tempest of losing a child to murder, she said.

“Sometimes, nothing helps and it’s just awful,” she said. Other times, she finds some peace in wondering how the organ recipients’ lives have changed for the better.

“I’ve imagined what it’s like to be on the positive end of this tragedy,” she said. “The sadness of a loss like this is so big, that if you don’t hold on to something it’s likely that it’s a darkness you might never recover from.”

As for contacting the recipients of Tyler’s organs, Shannon Munster said in November that she wasn’t quite ready to reach out.

Sometimes, organ recipients are reluctant to respond, as recipients can experience guilt in knowing that someone else had to die, Tucker said.

“They’re not sure how to say thank you in a way that feels adequate,” she said.

Shaw most wants to meet the man who received her son’s heart. She hasn’t done so yet, but in the meantime, she rereads his letter.

“I promise to give him the life he never got to finish,” the man wrote. “Take him places that he may have never been and leave a little of us along the way. I hope God gives you peace and that you understand I will give him the best life I can for that is what he deserves.”

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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