Steve Saunders' Second Chance

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Turn now to the summer of ’89. And go downriver. Down to Fort Madison, Iowa, a little red-brick river-town poured into a notch in the wooden bluffs that line the Mississippi. To Stephen Saunders’ hometown. To that ordinary July night when an awful thing happened.

It is a black, black night. The air is thick with a misty, drizzling rain. There had been a full moon — Steve’s dad remembers a full moon, though that was earlier, long before midnight, before the low, rain-laden clouds settled into the valley, blotting the moon and the stars right out of the sky. A cold, pelting rain. So the windshield wipers are flapping and the radio is on and their young, grinning, laughing faces are illuminated by the dashboard’s red glow.

It is a red Chevy Beretta, fire-engine red, the car he had gotten after high school last year. The car is going fast but that’s okay; Steve’s hands are tight on the wheel.

He’s driven out here dozens of times. Out on the two-lane roads that roll and dip with the contours of a slope-shouldered landscape carved by gullies and ravines. Out from town on Highway 61. Out Augusta Road and past the prison, past the farmstead and thickets. Out to the Wever turnoff — Country Road J-48 — then into Wever and reconnect with 61, which leads back home.

It is a much traveled route: a 15-mile loop familiar to Fort Madison teenagers driving around, cruising, waving and honking on smiling summer nights with not much else to do.

But tonight, long past midnight, on the country road just blacktopped — so recently blacktopped that no center stripe or shoulder lines have been painted — Steve Saunders sails downhill. He crosses the little bridge over the tree-lined creek. Then he accelerates back uphill and — at the top of the hill where the road swings abruptly left — drives right off into the darkness.


 

The call came at — wasn’t it 1:56 a.m.? It woke Carl and Susan Saunders. Joanne Thornberg, a family friend, was on the phone. She said Steve had been in an accident. He was badly hurt. Brian Day, the only other passenger in the car, had shown up banging on her door. She had called the sheriff. An ambulance was on the way. She and Brian and her son, Joel, were heading out to the scene of the accident. “Get to the hospital right away,” she said.

Carl and Sue pulled on clothes and tore downstairs. The first thing Sue noticed was the smell. The kitchen light was on, and there was a pizza baking in the oven. Then she heard the sirens screaming through town.


 

The night was black and wet, a muddled shining nightmare. Brian was dazed, disoriented. It took 30 minutes to locate the car. They found Stephen in a ditch, unconscious, his body limp. The mangled car was 50 feet away.

Joanne Thornberg bundled Steve in a blanket and held him in her lap. “I held him until the ambulance came,” she told Sue later, “like he was my son, my child.” She held him in the rain till the ambulance came. Until he was whisked away. Red lights shining in the night.


 

Carl and Sue waited at the emergency room at the Fort Madison Community Hospital. They paced and prayed. Going on 3 a.m. Our Fathers and Hail Marys over and over. A priest arrived, then the ambulance came and the body was wheeled in briskly. Steve appeared to be sleeping. No blood. Just a couple of scuffs on his summery skin.

But the doctors were candid: It was serious. It was the brain. They had trouble getting him stabilized. His body had folded in on itself, his arms clenched between his legs — a tell-tale sign of brain damage. They had to get him to Iowa City right away. “Wait,” Carl Sunders said, stopping the medical team for a moment. You should know, he explained, that Stephen wanted to be an organ donor.

The weather was too bad to go by helicopter so they wrapped him in this black pressurized suit — it looked like a diver’s wetsuit. “I remember his feet sticking out,” his mother said later. “I remember thinking that his feet must be cold.” Then they wheeled him out and the ambulance wailed off into the night. An hour and a half to the University of Iowa Hospital, over those winding, sliding tow-lane roads, with the Saunderses racing down the highway behind them, trying to keep up, flying at breakneck speed. But the ambulance was soon out of sight.

There was a prayer that Sue Saunders taught her children, Mike, Steve and Emily, in their big ivy-covered brick house over on Avenue F. It went: “God’s hands are beneath you. His love is around you. His faith is within you. And for no reason will he let you fall.” The prayer echoed in her head now as she and Carl trailed the ambulance bearing their broken son.


 

It was all so hard to bring into focus. Hours before, Stephen Bradley Saunders — blue eyed, blond-haired, always grinning, always happy — had been riding the crest of his 19th summer. “It was the best of times,” his father said. “He was invincible — eight feet tall and bullet-proof.”

He had graduated a year earlier from Aquinas High School with a 4.0. Valedictorian. National Honor Society. President of his junior and senior classes. He had a girlfriend and that big, infectious smile. Every goal had become an achievement. The kind of kid who would make the state tennis tournament as a high school freshman. As a senior he became intrigued by golf — intrigued enough to take up the sport and make the varsity. A perfectionist. Yet he made time to work at the church, to lead the fund-raising effort for God’s Portion Day to help the needy.

He applied to only one college — Notre Dame — and was elated to enter the Class of ’92. He absolutely loved the place, basking in a national championship season that fall, making the dean’s list and going to daily Mass, stopping often at the Grotto. One night he wrote from his Zahm Hall room: “The challenge of Notre Dame has made me realize before I even got here that I had better get some help from upstairs, if you know what I mean. I have become pretty good friends with God and the Lady on the Dome, and I soon discovered that they are good friends to have.”

The summer of ’89, between his freshman and sophomore years, was a plateau, a sunlight ledge on which to play and enjoy the view before getting on with things. He worked, as he had during high school, at the B&M Card Store. He and the proprietor, Burl Armstrong, were avid sports card collectors, traveling to card shows in Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco. Life was good. Everyone in town knew Steve.


 

That midsummer Monday evening — July 17 — Carl and Steve went with Tom and Jeff Mohrfeld to the movies in Burlington, Iowa, about 20 miles upriver. They saw Lethal Weapon. When they got back to the Mohrfelds’ house, Carl got out of the car to go inside for a while. But Steve said he had plans, he had friends to meet. So Carl and Steve went home. It was about 9. “He gave me this big smile,” Sue recalled later, “and he walked out the door and went off to meet his friends.” Carl and Sue went on to bed.

Much later, Carl put the pieces together, reconstructing the night’s events. Really, it was just another night: Steve had met some friends and they made the rounds that all kids make. Stopping at Hardee’s and McDonald’s. Going down to Riverview Park. Parking there by the river and looking across the wide and steady waters at the bluffs of Illinois.

Drinking some. Maybe beer. Certainly some vodka and tomato juice — Bloody Marys. Cruising again. Avenue G through town. Hardee’s. McDonald’s. Drinking some. Honking and laughing.

At 12:30 there were four in the car. Then two — Steve and Brian Day. And they were hungry. So Steve and Brian drove over to Easter Foods and bought a frozen pizza. And went to Steve’s house and put it in the oven.

Then they did a curious thing. They got back in Steve’s car and drove out Highway 61. They would make the loop one more time and be back to eat the pizza.


 

The skid marks showed that it was the right rear tire that went off when the road flared left. Steve fought it, tried to get the car back on the road, tires rumbling, spitting gravel. But the shoulder there at the top of the hill — just past the mailbox that he somehow missed — is narrow. And then there’s that sudden, steep, five-foot dropoff.

Police say the red Beretta cartwheeled once, end over end, then rolled several times. The centrifugal force hurled Steve and Brian 50 feet through the air. They landed near each other. Brian was OK; Steve was unconscious. His brain was severely bruised in a couple of spots. The brain stem was hemorrhaging. A leg was broken, too.


 

Just as the first light shone upon Tuesday, July 18, Stephen B. Saunders was admitted by the University of Iowa Hospital as patient 89-20324-7. Doctors diagnosed a diffuse axonal injury — a brain injury in which many of the connecting tracts between the nerves are sheared, damaging not only the brain but also the connections between the brain stem and the rest of the body. The trauma to this conduit between the brain and spine, the doctors said, was severe enough to account for Steve losing consciousness.

The only treatment for such patients is to try to prevent further injury. Once injured, the brain will swell, and pressure within the head can cause further permanent damage. The doctors would do what they could. The vigil began.

As the doctors inserted a fiberoptic monitor into the brain to follow the intracranial pressure, Carl and Sue settled into the waiting room on the hospital’s intensive-care floor, just outside Surgical Bay 1 where Steve lay unconscious.

“Sometimes as a parent,” Sue Saunders explained, “you know you can’t do anything. So I said, ‘God, I don’t know the answer. He’s in your hands.’ It was the first time that my faith was ever really tested, and I simply trusted. I can’t tell you the strength and courage that came to me, immediately.” Then she added, “Of course, Stephen had tremendous faith. He was very close to his God.”

Carl found a phone and made the necessary calls to his friends and family, to their other two children. Mike, 21, was in Des Moines that summer; he arrived by noon. Emily, 17, was working in Chicago; she made it to the hospital by 5:30 that evening.

She was met at the fifth-floor elevator by strained, solemn faces. “Emily,” her father said softly as he took her hand, “why don’t I take you down to see Steve?”

In the corridor outside his room, Emily was introduced to Dr. Vincent Traynelis, the neurosurgeon. “It’s very important that you’re strong in there,” he told her. “Stephen needs to hear your confidence, not your tears.” He paused. “Go in there imagining the worst thing you’ve seen on TV; you can’t be shocked when you see him.”

Later she said, “Nothing prepared me for the condition Steve was in” –her strong, dependable, carefree brother being kept alive with tubes, bolts, respirators and needles. Her father urged her to talk: “Let him know you’re here,” he said. “But with each moment,” she later confessed, “my confidence drained more and more from within me. I wanted to talk to him, to tell him it really was OK. But no words would come out.”

The vigil soon turned into a nightmarish stream of fragmented images, of muffled sounds and papery voices, of well-wishers and nurses, of dozing on cramped orange couches and pushed-together chairs. The days became nights and became days again. But Carl and Sue, Mike and Emily didn’t leave; they waited, round the clock.

“It was hell,” Carl said later. “It really was hell. You can’t describe the agony you go through. We got to see him 10 minutes every hour. And here’s all these families going through the same thing — camping out in this waiting room. You don’t eat good, you don’t sleep good, and every time someone stops by you have to go through the same story.”

The ordeal had its consolations: an outpouring of support from friends, family and acquaintances; a family pulling together as never before. Friends and family marveled at Sue’s fortitude and faith. “I tried to stay strong for the children and my husband,” she said. “And when I couldn’t hold it any longer, I would go in the bathroom and break down and just cry, just sob.”

Meanwhile, Steve’s cranial pressure mounted. He was put on a respirator to lower the carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, which was causing the brain’s blood vessels to constrict. He was given diuretics to help draw fluid from the brain. Despite these treatments, he slipped into a deeper coma.

While the doctors labored, friends and family did what they could to will Stephen back to life. “I will always feel he heard us,” Sue recalled. “And at times I felt him squeezing my hand. But they told us that was just reflexes.” They talked to him when they visited the room, consoling him, supporting him, urging him on.

And they put headphones on him so he could listen to music — The Nutcracker Suite or the Glee Club singing the old Notre Dame standards. A nurse who made a trip to South Bend brought back a National Championship button and hooked it to his IV tube. And Jerry Jacobs, his roommate, came; and Shannon Roach, another Notre Dame friend; and his girlfriend, Amy Wolgemuth — they all came and stayed. Or brought food. Or prayed.

Mostly there was time to think, long hours to remember pushing Stevie in the swings at the park, the time he came on as a 10-year-old relief pitcher to win the game, the hours he spent shooting hoops in the backyard with his jambox playing loud, the Kentucky Derby parties, his touchdown against Central Lee High School, the high school graduation bash…the pizza in the oven, the broken seatbelt he kept promising to get fixed…the Fourth of July party.

Two weeks before the accident, Carl and Sue had gone to Clear Lake for the weekend. So Steve and Emily, who drove down from Chicago, threw a Fourth of July party. And one of the partyers went for a spin and hit a parked car and got in a scrape with the police for driving under the influence. What followed was a long and intense family meeting that ended with agreements about drinking and driving, and with Steve and Em losing the use of their cars.

Later Steve asked for a second chance. After all, it was the first party that he’d ever thrown, and it was confined to the basement and he wasn’t the one who’d been out driving. “He was an exceptional kid,” Carl said. “His room was neat as a pin. He always made sure his studies were done before he did anything fun. I thought he had earned the right to sow a few wild oats. So I cut him some slack because he had always done so well and had accomplished so much.” Steve got his second chance.


 

Turn now to Marcus, Iowa, a little town some five hours west of Iowa City. To the home of Gerald and Jeannette Hohbach, whose son David, a high school freshman that summer of ’89, performs dialysis on himself four times a day. He has no kidneys.

David was 13 when a school nurse spotted something wrong from a urine test during a routine physical. His body was expelling too much protein. His diseased left kidney, functioning at 20 percent, was removed July 23, 1987. Tests revealed that the other kidney was similarly diseased. And five months later it contained blood clots — including one in the vein moving towards his heart.

Over the next 12 months, medication and repeated hospitalization precariously maintained his body’s delicate balancing act, but treatment only delayed the inevitable. By January 1989, David was too ill to return to classes with the other freshmen at Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn High School, and in March his right kidney was removed, leaving his body with no way to filter the poisons from his bloodstream.

By that July, the artificial means of removing urea and uric acid from the body known as dialysis had become a way of life for David. The only way. Four times a day. He was 15.


 

Or go to West Point, Iowa, a little town built around a central square just up the road from Fort Madison. There is a woman there, Joan Walljasper, who in the summer of ’89 was 42 years old and also on dialysis. And almost ready to give up. “There were times,” she recalled, “when if I hadn’t had children, I would’ve just said, ‘No more.’ Dialysis patients do that. It’s not talked about much, but it happens.”

Joan was a 15-year-old back in Chetopa, Kansas, when she learned the genetic deck had been stacked against her. She was diagnosed as diabetic, and by the time she reached her mid-30s, things were spiraling downward. The deterioration started with peripheral neuropathy: nerve damage in her hands and legs, riveting pains, a loss of touch, an inability to feel hot and cold properly — manifestations that impaired her work as a key-punch operator. “I couldn’t tell if I had hit the keys,” she said. It was only the beginning.

Over the next seven years Joan Walljasper, a gentle, softspoken woman, would endure an onslaught of maladies, some related to the diabetes and some not, that ranged from bleeding ulcers to bladder infections, from gallstones to kidney failure. She would survive two heart attacks, almost three dozen surgeries, and be given up for dead four times. But the worst thing, she said, was when the diabetes caused her to be blind for months at a time: learning to read Braille, to walk with a cane, the day she went to the park alone and couldn’t get home.

“Pain,” she said, “was just a part of my life.” Something to accept. “I never thought that life was unfair,” she said. “I never asked, ‘Why me?’ Maybe it’s because I had a husband who was dying of cancer and it was so bad I gave him a shot of morphine every three hours. But he never complained. And every day he woke up and thanked God for another beautiful day. He would say that: ‘Thank you, God, for another beautiful day.’ So I had a good teacher.”

But the stories she can tell: of trying dialysis in her groin until her blood pressure bottomed out; of Goretex artificial veins and subclavian catheters; of undergoing medical treatments without the necessary painkillers because the painkillers threatened her life; of the excruciating pain in her spine that screamed up into her head during the dialysis when the blood pressure dropped; of waking up one morning sweating and vomiting and reeling from the pain in her chest.

This was her life. And by the summer of ’89, it was grinding her down. “I can’t tell you how bad it was on dialysis,” she explained later. “On the day after dialysis I’d feel almost human again, but I’d start down again immediately after that.”

Still, in mid-July of that year she wasn’t thinking of herself so much as she was of Steve Saunders. She knew Steve, had watched him and his brother Mike growing up, had seen them walking down the street, playing in parks and on school playgrounds. Mike had been over to her house to play with her son Bob and had even spent the night there.

And now in the days following Steve’s accident she read the local paper for the daily reports of his condition. She thought of him and his family, and prayed that he would live.


 

On Sunday, July 23, 1989, it appeared that some of those prayers were being answered. Stephen was calm and stable. The day before, the doctors had discussed rehabilitation centers, though chances of any significant recovery were slim. The Saunderses had been persuaded to check into a motel the preceding evening, and to go out for dinner. It was time to rest and regroup.

“Sunday was a gift to us,” Sue said later. “It was a very good day. We were surrounded by a lot of supportive people.” The day was even somewhat festive. Those who were keeping watch in the hospital were joined by Burl Armstrong and Brian Day and by even more cousins and family. They sang to him — goofy, funny songs that made Emily think, surely Steve will smile and open his eyes, then break into a grin and sit up.

Everyone was certain that Steve knew Brian was there and was relieved to see that Brian was all right. “I don’t think Steve could have handled it,” Sue said of the possibility that Brian may have been killed or crippled.

About 5:30, the family decided to break for dinner. “I told him,” Sue recalled, “that he’d had a big day and he was doing so well and he’d had a lot of company. I told him to take it easy. We’d see him later.”


 

At 8:30 that night Dr. Traynelis called the motel. The cranial pressure was rising again. Temperature was up. The kidneys were failing. They were taking Steve back down for another CAT scan. All his systems were starting to go.

Sue Saunders was taking a bubble bath and trying to relax. “But then I just unloaded the tears,” she would recall. “They came and they came and they came. And I just prayed. I said, ‘God, he’s your child and I trust you. If, if, if he should have to go to you, he’s yours.’ And I let him go.”

As a last resort to control the intracranial pressure, Steve was given barbiturates. But they didn’t work. By Monday morning all hope was gone. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the brain wave was flat. They waited throughout the day. That evening everyone had a chance to say goodbye.

On Tuesday, July 25, although he had blood pressure and his heart was still beating, the EEG showed to electrical activity in the brain, no evidence of neurological function, no longer any blood flowing through the brain. The doctors pronounced Stephen Saunders dead.


 

His story does not end there, of course. There are the memories of him, and the impact his life had on those who knew him. Memorial services were held in Fort Madison and at Notre Dame; they were intended, Sue explained, “to celebrate his life, not mourn his death.”

A memorial grotto was built in the yard of his parish church, and a scholarship established in his name at Notre Dame. Two Iowa high schools and Zahm Hall established scholar-athlete awards in his name.

But Steve Saunders’ legacy is even more poignant than all of that.


 

At 2 p.m. on July 26, 1989, Joan Walljasper learned that her four-month plea on the national computer list for a kidney had been answered. One had been found and looked like a solid match.

She broke down. “I hadn’t cried like that,” she said, “since my dad died when I was 5. It was gut-wrenching, the most overwhelming feeling I’ve had in my life.” She cried, she explained, “out of fear, joy, anxiety. I had waited so long and I thought, ‘Life is going to begin again.’”

Not until she was speeding to the hospital in Iowa City did she make the connection between the newly available kidney and Steve Saunders’ death the day before. The identities of donors and recipients are kept strictly confidential unless both families agree to break the anonymity, but Joan’s hunch was affirmed when she was told at the hospital that the donor was a 19-year-old male who’d died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Then things began moving too fast for her to dwell on the coincidence.

Arriving at the hospital at 5 p.m., she was put through a series of tests to determine if she was up to the surgery and if the kidney was right for her. Because of Steve’s condition, only his kidneys and eyes were transferable. Joan’s physiology matched the kidney’s in the four essential categories.

The transplant team worked through the night to ensure that her body not reject the foreign object to be implanted in it. As the hours passed and the preparations for the operation progressed, Joan Walljasper moved closer to her new beginning. “These doctors were different from any I’d ever known,” she said later. “The relationship between doctors, nurses, and patients was intensely personal. The bonding was incredible, a family feeling. It’s the only place I’ve ever felt safe medically.”

The transplant was performed on July 27, 1989. The next day in recovery, Joan met David Hohbach, the teenager from Marcus, Iowa, who, she would later learn, had received Steve’s other kidney. A gift of life.


 

Now go forward to the summer of ’92, the year Steve Saunders would have graduated from Notre Dame as a member of its sesquicentennial class.

In Marcus, Iowa, David Hohbach has just finished high school and is getting ready to enter Iowa State in the fall; he’ll study engineering.

And in West Point, Iowa, Joan Walljasper lives in a small apartment. She has gone back to school, visits nursing homes and is considering a full-time job. “Mainly,” she says, “I have a life. I feel like other people feel. I can keep up. Now I can make a contribution to the world rather than being taken care of all the time.

“And you know what I want to do?” she says. “I want to make people understand they don’t need those organs in heaven, but people here do. And it doesn’t hurt a person, once they’re dead. It’s a good thing. It lets a piece of them live on, to keep contributing to life.”

She will also tell you that some 15,000 persons are now on the waiting list for a kidney; about half will get one. Thousands of others are waiting for other organs — with donations down from the year before. “Because of Steve,” she says, “I am no longer one of these statistics.

“In a sense,” she explains, her voice a near whisper, “I’m keeping a part of him alive while he is keeping all of me alive. And I can feel it. I can physically touch it,” she says, her fingers kneading her side. “I can tell if it’s swollen or if it’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Then she adds, “I feel a moral obligation to do more with my life because of who he was. And I am emotionally, physically and mentally stronger than before — maybe because I’m trying harder because I was given a second chance from this very special person.”


 

And, finally, in this summer of 1992, go again to Fort Madison, Iowa. Back to the river, where the waters flow and the trains run. Where the riverboat, Emerald Lady, is docked, and the stockade replica of Old Fort Madison stands guard over Riverview Park where Steve Saunders drank one summer night with friends.

Carl Saunders jogs there regularly. Around his neck is a chain with a gold cross. Inside the cross are the ashes of his lost son. “I talk to Stevie every day,” he says, “And I always wear this cross.”

The first year was the hardest, he says; but Steve had such a full, good, and happy life. “I finally concluded that Stevie died because he made a mistake. It was his fault. Knowing that has made it easier to accept.” But, he adds wistfully, “I did stupider things when I was a kid, and I lived.”

Susan Saunders walks along the river at least once a day. She, too, talks to Steve daily and knows he hears her. She feels his presence around her. She will tell you that Steve’s story is a story of faith, and of God’s strength, and that from the tragedy has come great joy, and faith, and many good things. “God has walked with me every day since,” she says. “And I know Steve’s okay, and that it’s better seeing the Lord in heaven than being here on earth.”

Often she will stop at a particular rock along the water and look out upon the river. “You know,” she says, “I’ve thought a lot about whether God wanted this to happen. Or if it was just something that happened, and then God was there. I think it was just something that happened.”

She watches a barge churning upstream. The sky is blue; the sharp wind is chilly. “There’s something about losing a child that’s out of the order of life,” she says. “You expect to lose your parents, and you expect that someday you may lose your spouse. But you do not expect to ever lose your children.

“And then you know your life will never, ever be the same again, and life feels totally out of control. I don’t know how anyone could survive it if they didn’t believe they would someday see them again in heaven.”

As she turns to head back home, to the large brick house on Avenue F, she adds, “It’s the missing. God, it’s the missing. You miss the voice, their touch, their laughter. The smile. Everyone mentioned his smile. Steve had this incredible smile that just lit up the world.”


Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.


 

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