(Posted Nov. 7, 2018)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
With his gentle demeanor, large glasses and fondness for Pokémon clothing, a young River Richards often bore the brunt of mean-spirited comments from his peers.
“They were always making fun of him,” said his mother, West Jefferson resident Donna Richards. “They made fun of him for how he looked. They made fun of him for what he wore. They even made fun of him for being smart.”
When the comments first began, she said, River would try to laugh along with those making the comments or brush off the unkind words. But Richards could always tell the other kids’ lack of acceptance bothered her son immensely.
“Those years really shaped who he was,” she said.
Rather than direct his hurt onto others, River went in the opposite direction by swearing to do his best to make a positive impact on the lives of others. It was a promise by which he lived even after his death.
It was the early days of December 2016 when Richards took a call from her eldest son who told her of his sleepless nights. She reminded him to take care of himself.
“He was always putting others above himself,” she said. “That’s just the way he functioned.”
After a brief chat about life and school, the two said their goodbyes as River went off to work. It would be the last time they would speak to each other.
Hours after the conversation, Richards’s ex-husband called to say River was missing.
“It didn’t make any sense to me,” she said. “What did he mean River was missing? I had just talked to him. He was supposed to be on his way home from work,” Richards recalled.
After calling River’s cell phone repeatedly and reaching out to his friends on Facebook, Richards went online to see if something had happened on the road he typically traveled back to his father’s house.
“I saw that there had been an accident and that one of the major roads had been closed,” she said.
At first, she didn’t get that sinking feeling that something had happened and asked her ex-husband to go out there.
“He called once to say that he couldn’t see anything,” she said. “Then he called back again to say there was something on the side of the road that he had given River for his car.”
Shortly thereafter, they received word that River had been transported to a hospital via medical helicopter and was in the intensive care unit.
Upon arriving at the hospital and later speaking to the crash investigators, they learned that River was likely at fault for the head-on collision.
“We believe he fell asleep at the wheel,” Richards said.
They also learned the collision had injured two adults and taken the life of a 4-year-old girl.
“I knew by then that it would be a long road should River recover from his injuries, but I also knew that if I told him he had accidentally taken the life of a child, it would have destroyed him mentally,” Richards said.
For nearly two weeks, the Richards family held out hope that their beloved son, brother, nephew and confidant would wake from his coma. Then came a seizure that originated in his brain stem.
“I knew there was no coming back,” Richards said.
Knowing that her son was an organ donor, she took solace in the fact that he made the decision to give life to others should something happen to him.
“He was always thinking about others,” she said, “even while deciding what would happen when he dies.”
According to Jessica Petersen of Lifeline of Ohio, a non-profit organization that promotes and coordinates organ donation, River saved three lives through organ donation, gave sight to two others and has helped further lung research at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
She called that the legacy of giving life.
“What some people don’t realize about organ donation is the wide-ranging impact it has,” Petersen said. “You’re not just saving the recipient, you’re saving their families, their friends and their loved ones. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.”
After River’s death, Richards received a letter from the family of one of the recipients. She said it was that letter that really made her understand the importance of her son’s donation.
“It gave me a sense of peace knowing that a part of him is still alive and helping others,” she said. “It’s what he would have wanted.”
It’s been nearly two years since River died and as a way to honor her son, Richards has become an advocate and ambassador for Lifeline of Ohio. She started River’s Runners for the non-profit’s annual fundraising walk/run; she talks with families struggling through their grief; and she takes any opportunity to speak about the importance of organ donation.
Recently, Richards shared River’s story with the crowd who came out to celebrate Make a Difference Day at the West Jefferson Community Center. Lifeline of Ohio was one of 15 non-profits recognized for their contributions to the region. Richards watched and smiled as a Lifeline of Ohio flag was raised at the event in River’s memory.
According to Petersen, 114,676 individuals nationwide are on the waiting list to receive an organ transplant. In Ohio, 2,900 people are on the waiting list, 615 of whom live in central Ohio. Hundreds more are awaiting tissue and corneal transplants.
For more information about organ donation or how to become a donor, visit the Lifeline of Ohio website at www.lifelineofohio.org.