Stephen's Story

Organ donor Stephen RutherfordOn a blistery February afternoon in 2004, Kathy Rutherford received a devastating phone call. The voice on the other end laid out the sobering news. Her 19-year-old son, Stephen (pictured), had been severely injured following an accident at the local construction company where he worked. With her son now clinically brain dead, Kathy faced a tragic decision concerning her son's future. Only one thing seemed certain.


"Our lives would never be the same," she said.

That day sparked an emotional journey that began with an overwhelming sense of loss and eventually led to a restored sense of hope. The journey is a sobering lesson about the frailty of life and a reminder of how a selfless gesture can save the lives of those in need.

By every account, Stephen Rutherford was an average Midwestern teenager with a notable exception. He aspired to help others. The selfless acts of young people don't always make front page news and in Stephen's case he never felt the need or desire to brag about his compassion.


"Stephen always went out of his way to help his classmates, lending an ear to their problems," said Kathy. "He was full of life. When he walked into a room you knew he was there."

At 16, Stephen's desire to help led him to the local Plainfield, Wisconsin Fire Department, where he became a cadet. Joining the department gave him direction and an outlet for his passions.


"He found a place where he fit in," said Kathy. "His dream was to join a city fire department some day."

Relatively fresh out of high school, Stephen confidently pursued his dream while finding temporary work at a construction company nearby. While unloading platforms that February morning, a sudden gust of wind and falling construction debris ended his pursuit. He was pronounced brain-dead three days later.

With Stephen clinging to life, Kathy and her family looked at the possibility of donating his organs. She learned about the great need that exists for suitable donors. There are currently over 98,000 patients on the national organ recipient list and the number continues to climb, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

At the same time, new procedures and techniques are making organ transplants more successful. State-of-the-art institutions, like the UW Health Transplant Program, are also giving hope and a possible future to patients, a future that requires the cooperation of donors and their families.

Kathy also learned about the need for a more open dialog between doctors, the medical community and possible donors. Misperceptions often lead perspective donors to stray away from signing their organ donor cards and talking to their family about the possibility of giving. Unfortunately for the thousands waiting on the organ list, a lack of dialog has meant that many people who want to donate are not given the opportunity because their family is unaware of their status as a donor.


"Doctors can only do so much and in some cases their hands are tied," said Kathy. "It's up to you to see it though."

After soul searching, Kathy and her family donated Stephen's organs and soon discovered that his gift was much more extensive than they could have imagined. Stephen's donation would come to save five different lives through his major organs alone. Two more patients would also receive his eyes. From a tissue donation, doctors were able to perform 57 bone grafts as well as six ligament and connective tissue transplants. Further skin graft donations also helped many other patients in need.


In all, 81 people were helped through Stephen's donation. It was only weeks later that Kathy discovered that Stephen had previously pledged to be an organ donor. The revelation was another strong show of support for the donation that would benefit so many.

Now several years later, Kathy continues Stephen's legacy of hope by celebrating his life and giving back to the community. She actively volunteers for the UW Health Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) and for Donate Life Wisconsin (DLW), a state-wide coalition that promotes organ donation.

For years to come, the Rutherford family will proudly remember the gift that Stephen gave to others. In the shadow of his death, his desire to contribute is complete.


"Donating Stephen's organs was the only way his dream of helping others could come true," said Kathy. "He wanted to make a difference in the world and he did."