19-year-old killed in Cass County ATV crash saves 4 lives through organ donation

A young man who died in an ATV accident in northern Minnesota has saved the lives of four people across the country through organ donation.

Tristan Miller, a 19-year-old from Backus in Cass County, died after crashing his ATV into a tree. His mother said Tristan had been out fishing with his younger brother Quentin on the morning of May 24 when he took off on his ATV to find a better spot.

"Quentin said he heard him zooming around and then all of a sudden he heard him stop, so he took off on his wheeler to see where his brother was at," said their mother, Jeanine Nathe. "As he was coming up on one of the corners on that trail, he said at first he saw his jacket and then, as he’s coming around the corner, he saw Tristan laying in a huddled mess."

Nathe said Tristan was airlifted to North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale. Nathe said the medical team there declared her son brain-dead a few days later.

"You knew it was coming to an end and that’s a hard place to be as a parent, to watch your kid slip away," Nathe said, through tears. "The doctor asked us how we felt about organ donation. At the end of the day, if Tristan couldn’t use it, he damn sure would want somebody else to be able to."

The decision was made in the height of the riots in the Twin Cities, following the death of George Floyd. Due to curfews and safety concerns, Tristan’s organ recovery surgery was delayed from Friday night into Saturday.

"What happened that day and that night was extraordinary," said Susan Gunderson, CEO of LifeSource, the Minneapolis-based organization that facilitated the organ donation. "This was truly in the height of the civil unrest and the height of the pandemic and yet it all happened."

LifeSource said Tristan’s gifts saved four lives:
— A 25-year-old mother at Mayo Clinic in Rochester received his pancreas,
— A 32-year-old man at the M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Transplant Center received his right kidney,
— A 58-year-old man at Vanderbilt University in Nashville received his heart and left kidney,
— A 43-year-old man at Froedtert Memorial in Milwaukee received his liver.

"I’ve probably spent a majority, more than half of my life, in a hospital," said KayLin Gragg, the young mother who received Tristan’s pancreas.

Gragg, who lives in Topeka, Kansas, suffers from a rare form of cystic fibrosis that attacked her digestive system. She said she has had chronic pancreatitis since she was 6 weeks old and had her pancreas removed in 2016. She said that caused her to become a Type 1 diabetic and have heart failure.

"You have given me the greatest gift I could ever hope for," Gragg said through tears. "I have waited for this for a very, very long time."

Gragg said, after her transplant, she realized it was the first time in 26 years she was not in pain.

"I could never tell anybody how thankful I am," Gragg said. "I can only hope and dream that I will live my life to fulfill his."

Meanwhile, Gary Marr in Glasgow, Kentucky, was feeling the same overwhelming gratitude for receiving a new heart and kidney.

"I felt so bad, I was crying quite a bit in the hospital because of the person, I didn’t even know who it was, lost their life," Marr said. "I kept looking up at sky saying, ‘I wish I could say his name, you know? Thank you.’"

Marr had battled diabetes since childhood. He said he got really sick in 2010, going into septic shock and kidney failure, and recently, his heart has been pumping at less than 20% of its normal function.

"You could just see the life of the heart giving him color," said Cindy Marr, Gary’s wife. "We’re terribly indebted and grateful for the second chance. You know, not many people have a second chance."

"The first initial thought in my head was, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing,’" added Kyle Marr, Gary’s son. "The second thought was, ‘We need to bless this family.’ Even though this is a wonderful gift that we have, this is a gift we need to cherish."

Gragg and Marr told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they hope to someday meet the family of the young man who saved their lives.

"So honored that they let this happen because they could’ve decided no, they could’ve said no," Gary Marr said.

Gragg added, "How can you thank somebody for giving you life?"

Tristan’s mother said she finds peace in knowing her son’s spirit can live on through the lives of four strangers.

"It’s really kind of nice to know that there’s still a part of Tristan out there," Nathe said. "I just hope the life he lived and the way he lived his life can shine through some of these people, that they go gung-ho and they live it to the fullest."

"It brings out the best in humanity to know that at a time of loss, someone else is being touched by that gift of life," added Gunderson.

LifeSource told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that, over the past 30 years, the organization has helped 40,000 patients with the gift of organs, tissue and cornea transplants. LifeSource is one of 58 organ procurement organizations in the United States, serving people in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

"The incredible thing is one person choosing to pass on the gift of life to someone else can save up to eight lives through organ donation and up to 60 more lives improved through tissue and eye donation," Gunderson explained. "It creates a legacy and it creates hope."

Gunderson said you can sign up to become an organ donor quickly and easily online. Click here to learn more.