No parent plans on dealing with the death of a child, but that's just what Mike Metelak of Detroit Lakes had to do when his son, Lee, was killed in a car accident July 24, 2003. Metelak finds comfort in the fact that Lee was an organ and tissue donor and went on to save 18 other lives.
Not only does it help with the grieving process, Metelak said, he's also proud of his son for his decision to mark his driver's license as an organ donor.
"The day after the accident, the rest of the story is completed. The positive part," he said.
Nearly three years later, he admits it's a daily challenge not to be depressed about losing Lee at age 20, but "to still be proud of your child even though they're gone" is the true triumph.
Lee died of head trauma when he was in a car accident and he was hit in the head by a fence post. There was no alcohol involved in the accident.
At the hospital, Metelak and Lee's mother, Vicki Callaghan, Blaine, decided to donate Lee's organs "because it was head trauma, he was a perfect donor," Metelak said.
Then they got the reassuring sign, one that made Metelak prouder than ever.
"The nurse told us Lee designated on his driver's license that he wanted to be a donor," he said.
Metelak said as parents watch their children grow up and challenge parents through the teen years, hearing the grown up decision his son had made filled him with pride.
"It was his opportunity to become that miracle in someone else's life."
They were able to donate everything from Lee's internal organs to his eyes and his skin. Metelak said it was difficult keeping out the mental images of his son without eyes or skin, but he detached Lee from the physical body and focused on his spirit.
The only downside of organ donation is dealing with the thought of a healthy young boy harvested of everything, he said.
But he keeps reminding himself of the positives and his memories of Lee, and it becomes something great again.
"There is so much suffering, you just have to make sure it doesn't turn into devastation."
And organ donation is how Metelak did that.
Through the organization LifeSource, Metelak was given a list with brief descriptions of the people who received Lee's organs and how they are doing with the organ. So far, the man who received Lee's liver has contacted Metelak to thank him for his gift of life. Metelak said he didn't want the 63-year-old retired teacher to feel that way.
"It was by the grace of God he got Lee's liver," he said. The Willmar man doesn't owe the Metelak family anything, he said.
Metelak said he would like to hear from the other recipients to know how the new organ has affected their lives, but the family isn't looking for any gratitude. Instead, it keeps Lee's spirit alive, he said.
Even Lee's intestines that didn't have a compatible recipient were placed with researchers to further medical treatments.
It's the perfect way to "turn a tragic event that has such a huge impact." Lee's positive effect on 18 families, 18 circles of friends, 18 communities is likely more then Metelak will have in his own lifetime, he said.
"This keeps him in our lives, keeps his spirit living," Metelak said.
Knowing that other people are now living healthy lives gives those left grieving an opportunity to heal.
"The thought that it was (the) wrong (decision) has never entered my mind."
Metelak said there is a gap between those needing organs and those doing the donating that needs to be closed.
According to statistics from LifeSource, every day, over 100 names are added to the list of those needing a transplant. There are only 74 of those transplants taking place, though, due to the lack of donors. The national list now includes more than 90,000 individuals, and 17 people die each day waiting for a transplant.
Metelak took a leadership course through work, SJ Electro Systems, where he had to write an essay. He wrote about Lee's death, the organ donation and dealing with the death of a child.
"I made a promise to Lee right before his funeral -- from this point forward my life would have to be more, not less," Metelak wrote. "I challenged myself to take an event that was so tragic on the surface, and let it transform my life in a positive way.
"I would hate to face Lee in heaven and have him say, 'Dad, I am disappointed that you really wasted your life after I died.' With that mental picture in mind, a meaningless life is not an option."
Metelak has taken the tragic event of losing a child and turned it into the positive gift of donation -- reminding himself and others that Lee's spirit will live on for years and years to come though his gift of organ and tissue donation.