Share Tweet Share Email Print

Unexpected friendship grows out of a tragic death

Heart transplant patient connects with family of his young donor
Two women, one crying, embrace while sitting on a couch and others engage in conversation in a living room.
Duane Richards, 55, left, of Corbett, Oregon, an OHSU heart transplant patient, reacts with his wife Michelle Richards, after Danielle Hillman, far right, Jacob Ash's mother, Michelle Sequeira, second right, Hillman's sister, and Shelby Aguirre, Ash's sister, after they listen to the heart Richards received from donor Jacob Ash on June 26, 2021, in Spokane, Washington. Ash died after choking on a piece of hard candy on Sept. 29, 2020. His heart, liver and tissue, as well as both of his cornea and kidneys, were donated to people needing organ transplants. Ash would have turned 32 on June 27, 2021. (OHSU/ Tyler Tjomsland)

The living room went silent as Danielle Hillman leaned into the man’s chest.

The family quietly watched as she concentrated on the stethoscope’s flat metal end. Danielle anxiously smiled as she searched for, and then finally heard, the subtle beat of her son’s heart, nearly nine months after he died.

: A woman looks up as she leans into a man’s chest, upon which she holds the metal end of a stethoscope.
Duane Richards, 55, left, of Corbett, Oregon, an Oregon Health & Science University heart transplant patient, helps Danielle Hillman, right, the mother of his heart donor, Jacob Ash, listen to the heart her son donated for the first time on June 26, 2021, at Ash's former home in Spokane, Washington. Ash died after choking on a piece of hard candy on Sept. 29, 2020. His heart, liver and tissue, as well as both of his cornea and kidneys, were donated to people needing organ transplants. Ash would have turned 32 on June 27, 2021. (OHSU/ Tyler Tjomsland)

A part of Jacob “Jake” Ash lives on in the broad, burly chest of 55-year-old Duane Richards, a mechanical engineer who lives on 13 acres near Corbett, Oregon, and underwent a heart transplant Oct. 4, 2020, at Oregon Health & Science University.

Richards is one of many people who have received Jake’s organs after he choked on a piece of hard candy on Sept. 29, 2020, at the age of 31.

Jake – an outdoor adventurer, a professional blackjack dealer and an Army veteran – had signed up to be an organ donor. Both of his kidneys and corneas, as well as his heart, liver and tissue, were donated as a result. By checking a box on a driver’s license form, Jake saved four lives and two people’s sight, and healed many more.

A bearded young man smiles while standing in front of a river.
Organ donor Jacob Ash saved four lives and two peoples sight, and healed many more. Ash choked on a piece of hard candy on Sept. 29, 2020, at the age of 31, in Spokane, Washington. (Photo courtesy of David Ash)

Danielle and her ex-husband, David Ash, both of Mountain Home, Idaho, are partially working through their beloved son’s unexpected death by connecting with those who have received his organs. They’ve written letters to all of the recipients, but this marked the first time Jake’s family met one in person.

The gathering happened June 26, 2021 – the day before Jake would have turned 32 – in the Spokane, Washington, home that Jake had shared with his friend, coworker and housemate, Nolan Stamm.

“His heart is literally going back to his house,” said Danielle as she explained their plans a week before the emotional meeting. “I want to celebrate Jake and Duane. I want to create Jake’s legacy. I don’t want people to forget about my son.”

Heart troubles

Duane and his wife, Michelle Richards, will never forget Jake.

Despite being a high school distance runner, a youth soccer coach and an active outdoorsman, Duane has experienced dangerously irregular and accelerated heartbeats since at least 2012. That year, ventricular fibrillation interrupted a drive home with his then-teenage daughter after they had gone on a college tour.

Water drips from a bearded man as he smiles and stands in a body of aquamarine water.
Duane Richards, who underwent a heart transplant at Oregon Health & Science University on Oct. 4, 2020, has several similarities with his heart donor, Jacob Jake Ash, including being active outdoors enthusiasts, having beards and being kind. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Richards)

That was the first of maybe a half-dozen times he ended up in a hospital because his heart’s electrical system would sporadically go haywire. At first, medication and ablation, an electrical treatment that dulls the nerves of overactive heart muscles, helped. Later, a defibrillator was implanted so his heart could be shocked back into a normal rhythm. And then a pacemaker was needed.

On July 27, 2020, temperatures soared in Corbett as restaurants began to partially reopen because COVID-19 cases were declining. Duane and Michelle combined a trip to the hardware store with a dinner out that day. But Duane was exhausted when they got home, and began to speak incoherently. Michelle drove him to Adventist Health Portland, where doctors ultimately ruled out COVID-19. He was later transferred to OHSU for a higher level of cardiac care.

While at OHSU, tests revealed Duane has three genetic markers that made him prone to cardiac arrythmia. Several treatments were tried, but OHSU Heart Failure and Transplant Program and electrophysiology teams ultimately determined a heart transplant was the only remaining option. Duane was added to the transplant wait list and expected to be in the hospital for weeks or more as he waited for his fate to be determined. Just eight days later, he learned a heart had been found.

A man opens pulls apart his button-down shirt to reveal a wide scar that runs down the center of his chest.
Duane Richards, 55, of Corbett, Oregon, an Oregon Health & Science University heart transplant patient, wears a #justforjake bracelet as he shows the scar from his surgery to the family of his heart donor, Jacob Ash, for the first time on June 26, 2021, in Spokane, Wash. Ash died after choking on a piece of hard candy on Sept. 29, 2020. His heart, liver and tissue, as well as both of his cornea and kidneys, were donated to people needing organ transplants. Ash would have turned 32 on June 27, 2021. (OHSU/ Tyler Tjomsland)

Just for Jake

About 350 miles away, Jake Ash’s large extended family and his close-knit group of friends gathered at another hospital in Spokane, grappling with the news that he had no brain activity after collapsing alone at home.

Hospital staff learned Jake was an organ donor, and worked with the family to discuss next steps. At first his parents struggled with the idea, but they ultimately realized that’s what he wanted.

Family and friends had five days to spend at Jake’s side while patients who could use his organs were identified. Before the surgery, hospital staff lined the hallway and stood silently as Jake, draped in an American flag in recognition of his military service, was wheeled to the operating room. A nurse recorded an emotional video of the honor walk.

On the day of the surgery, Danielle asked friends and family to think of Jake while practicing acts of kindness or having adventures, two things Jake loved. She asked them to post about their Jake-inspired actions on social media while using the hashtag #JustForJake. She also made blue silicon bracelets with the hashtag printed in white ink, and mailed them to those who knew Jake, inviting them to post photos of their adventures while wearing a bracelet. To date, more 1,000 Facebook posts have been made and 300 bracelets have been shared.

In a Spokane operating room, surgeons carefully removed several of Jake’s organs, placed them in temporary cold storage, and quickly delivered them to hospitals across the country where at least six patients like Duane were awaiting their second chance.

Shortly after the surgery, Jake’s dad, David, drafted a letter for the patients who received his son’s organs. Danielle took a while longer to get her thoughts on paper, but also sent a letter about one and a half months after his death.

“Once you met Jacob, you became Jacob’s friend for life because he truly cared about others and would do anything for them,” David wrote. “I feel in my heart Jacob was put on this earth to spread his kindness to and to try to make everyone around him better.”

Framed photos of a smiling bearded young man line a countertop.
Nolan Stamm keeps images of his close friend and former roommate Jacob Ash, on display in his home on June 26, 2021, in Spokane, Washington. Ash died after choking on a piece of hard candy on Sept. 29, 2020. His heart, liver and tissue, as well as both of his cornea and kidneys, were donated to people needing organ transplants. Ash would have turned 32 on June 27, 2021. (OHSU/ Tyler Tjomsland)

The organization that coordinated Jake’s organ donation in Spokane, LifeCenter Northwest, served as the intermediary and helped share the letters with Jake’s organ recipients, allowing anonymity in case recipients weren’t ready to connect with the family of their donor.

Making connections

Just a few weeks after Duane’s heart transplant, he and his wife, Michelle, received David’s letter. They quickly wrote back and sent the letter through an intermediary at OHSU, and eagerly waited for a response.

In the meanwhile, Michelle described the letter to the spouses of other local transplant patients she had befriended. One of them shared a link to a December news story by a TV station that covers Jake’s hometown of Mountain Home, Idaho, and described #JustForJake as a “movement of kindness.” She searched the hashtag, found the video of Jake’s honor walk and cried.

Michelle suspected Jake was Duane’s donor, but wasn’t able to connect with Jake’s parents until an intermediary could confirm they were comfortable with direct communication. Since January, the four have exchanged emails, texts, social media post, phone calls and – starting this past weekend – hugs.

On Father’s Day, Michelle texted David to let him know she and Duane were thinking of him. David thanked them for keeping Jake in their minds.

“We think of Jake all the time,” Michelle said. “Almost everything we do, we say ‘we’re doing this because of Jake, because of his generosity.’ It’s because of Jake that we’re able to go on this hike, have a birthday and mark other milestones.”

One of those milestones happened in March, when Duane and Michelle visited Yosemite National Park in California. The previously active couple, married four years ago after hiking to a waterfall near their rural home, went slow and took breaks along the way in Yosemite.

A bearded man and a blonde woman smile as they stand in front of snow-capped mountains and a green forest.
Duane Richards, left, and his wife, Michelle Richards, visited Yosemite National Park in California in March 2021, just months after undergoing a heart transplant at Oregon Health & Science University on Oct. 4, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Richards)

“It’s amazing to think that is possible, especially considering the 80-some days I spent in a hospital bed last year,” Duane recalled.

Healing after loss

Back in Spokane last weekend, Duane and Michelle exchanged stories with Jake’s family and friends.

Duane relayed his long battle with heart disease, and Danielle shared their harrowing experience as Jake lay in the hospital last fall.

Duane talked about his love of hiking, snowboarding and waterfalls. Jake’s sister, Shelby Aguirre, was stunned by the uncanny irony, noting “those are literally all of Jake’s favorite things.” Michelle said her husband’s beard resembles the facial hair she’s seen in Jake’s pictures.

Duane commented that he’s been more emotional lately. Jake’s friend, Lindsey Tibbets, quickly replied that it made sense, given that emotions could overcome Jake, too.

The conversation easily flowed back and forth, as if they all had known each other for a long, long time.

“It’s really bizarre. We think of them as our family,” Michelle said. “They’re amazingly kind and wonderful people, and I think of them almost as my extended family. They’re basically strangers, but we feel very close to them.”

Michelle and Duane also acutely feel the pain of Jake’s death.

“I feel like I lost Jake, too,” Michelle said. “I’ve never met him, but I definitely feel a hole in my heart with his absence. I’m really grateful that Duane got his heart, but it’s such a tragedy that someone so young and full of life died to make that possible.”

A man wipes a tear from his cheek as a woman to his side looks on.
Duane Richards, 55, of Corbett, Oregon, an Oregon Health & Science University heart transplant patient, reacts as meets the family of his heart donor, Jacob Ash, for the first time on June 26, 2021, in Spokane, Washington. Ash died after choking on a piece of hard candy on Sept. 29, 2020. His heart, liver and tissue, as well as both of his cornea and kidneys, were donated to people needing organ transplants. Ash would have turned 32 on June 27, 2021. (OHSU/ Tyler Tjomsland)

Although David wasn’t able to meet Duane and Michelle this past weekend, he plans to greet them sometime in the future.

“It’s really cool to see the other side of organ donation, to see what Jake’s miracle – what his heart – has done for Duane’s family,” David said. “Duane has a daughter that he’s going to be able to walk down the aisle one day, and he has a son he can still spend time with. All because of my son. We won’t ever get over Jake’s death, obviously. But getting to know Duane is helping.”

Sign up to be an organ donor by going to https://www.donatelifenw.org/content/register-now.

To see more photos from this story, click here.

Previous Story OHSU among 25 centers treating debilitating movement disorder Next Story OHSU coronavirus (COVID-19) response