Ashley Howard was a Sequoyah High School student remembered by her parents, Kristi and Terry Howard, as a kind, smiling girl who loved riding horses and helping people.
She was 15 when she fell off a raft being pulled behind her family’s boat on Lake Lanier and was struck by another boat.
She was airlifted to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, but her parents said in moments following the accident, it didn’t seem that there was much hope to hold on to.
Ashley was declared brain dead four days later. However, her parents said her life didn’t exactly end there.
Now, the Howards find hope in the gifts given by their daughter.
Four of her organs were harvested and saved the lives of four people, three Georgia adults and a young girl in Indiana, her mother said.
Kristi recalls the scene as chaotic, with screaming and panicked strangers calling for help and a telling look of grief on her husband’s face when he found their daughter in the water.
It was June 20, 2010.
Terry woke up that morning at the family’s home in the Hickory Flat area of Cherokee County to a home-cooked breakfast in bed, a gift from his youngest daughters — Ashley and Annie Howard, who was 10 at the time.
After breakfast, the family drove north to Dawson County to meet friends and enjoy the day on Lake Lanier.
They spent hours rushing through the water on their boat, with three girls — Ashley, Annie and Ashley’s friend, Megan, trailing behind on a raft for much of the time.
In still-frame from a video taken by Kristi just before the accident, the three girls can be seen slipping through the water, with smiles wide and the sun lighting their faces.
Moments later, the day changed.
Suddenly, a pontoon boat pulled up behind them, latching onto the Howard family boat’s wake, and Ashley and Annie both fell off the raft.
Annie fell out of the way of the boat and wasn’t harmed, Terry said.
But Ashley fell in front of the boat, and Terry said she was struck by the boat’s motor. He said the boat’s driver didn’t see her.
Terry jumped in the water and rushed to her.
“The water was crimson,” he said, and Ashley was unresponsive.
Kristi called 911.
She said it was during that frantic call trying to explain their isolated location to the operator that she realized how serious Ashley’s injuries might be.
“Terry looked up at me, and I just knew it was bad,” Kristi said.” And I said ‘We need a helicopter.’”
An easy choice
Ashley arrived at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta later that afternoon.
Kristi said Ashley was put on life support and was never responsive again.
“After being there the third day, they started the brain death test,” she said, “and she was declared brain dead.”
It was during this test, Kristi said, that she and her husband were approached by a doctor who asked if they were willing to donate their daughter’s organs.
“We both right away looked at each other and we said ‘Yes,’” she said.
Kristi said the decision was easy.
Eight months earlier, Ashley registered to be an organ donor when she got her learner’s permit.
“Ashley knew about organ donation because her grandfather (Terry’s father) had received a liver,” she said. “We have a picture of her holding her (permit) and she was all proud.”
A team with Lifelink of Georgia — an organization Kristi and Terry now volunteer with — came in and helped begin the process of harvesting Ashley’s organs.
Ashley donated four organs: her heart, liver and both kidneys, her parents said.
Kristi said though she and her husband were familiar with and in favor of organ donation, it never occurred to them at the hospital to donate Ashley’s organs.
“You’re in shock,” Terry said. “You’re losing one of the most precious things in your world, and you’re not thinking about that.”
Now, three years later, the Howards said Ashley’s donations are ever-present in their minds, and in many ways, it’s what gets them through the loss.
“(It’s) given us light and hope,” Kristi said. “We were able to grant Ashley’s wishes, and four people have lived because of her.”
Today, the impact of their daughter’s gift of organs can be seen in the Howards.
Logos urging “Donate Life” are pasted throughout their world: on the back their car, on the windows of their house and even at the bottom of Kristi’s emails.
The Howards have not met any of the recipients of their daughter’s organs, but said that one day they might like to.
In the meantime, they wrote a letter to each of them a few months after Ashley died, through Lifelink, which connects donor families and organ recipients, while keeping each anonymous by not allowing the use of last names or specific living locations.
Terry said it was important for him and Kristi to reach out to them.
“A lot of (people who receive donor organs) feel kind of guilty about the way it happens, because it’s your loss,” Terry said. “And we didn’t want any of them to feel that, because that’s not the way we feel. That’s the only positive that we got out of this.”
Two have written back: LaShaun, a 40s-age United States Navy woman, who lives in Georgia and received one of Ashley’s kidneys, and a 9-year-old girl from Indiana who got Ashley’s heart.
Both expressed their gratitude.
LaShaun had trouble with her kidneys and was on dialysis, Kristi said.
Ashley’s kidney changed that.
LaShaun wrote that Ashley was her “Guardian Angel” and that she hoped that somehow Ashley knew “she has truly blessed the life of another.”
The young girl in Indiana who received Ashely’s heart had cardiomyopathy, a disease which causes chronic heart failure, Kristi said.
Ashley’s heart changed her situation as well.
“Thank you, donor family, for my new heart!” the young girl wrote in her letter in crayon. “Thank you!”
Kristi said these letters and the stories they tell keep the family going and hopeful.
“I think it would’ve made her death so much harder (if we didn’t have this),” Kristi said. “It would’ve just been some guy not paying attention at the lake (who) killed her, and that would’ve been the end of the story. Instead, we have this, and her story continues.”