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Lumberton family's tough decision to donate daughter's organs in 2014 saved five lives

The decision to become an organ donor can be as simple as saying “yes” while getting a Texas driver’s license.

LUMBERTON, Texas — Some say that you’re only one decision away from a totally different life and sometimes that decision could result in life or death for a stranger, years, or merely months, later.

The decision to become an organ donor can be as simple as saying “yes” while getting a Texas driver’s license.

Michael Sterling, of Lumberton, never ever imagined he’d be making a decision like this.

On February 3, 2014, Sterling’s wife, Dawn and their daughters Connely Renee Burns, 20 and Courtney Sterling, 15, were in a horrible wreck along U.S. 69 just south of Lumberton.

Dawn was critically injured but Connely and her unborn baby boy died at the scene. Courtney was left brain dead at the hospital.

The Kirbyville woman that struck the Nissan Murano they were riding in was driving her Camaro at about 150 mph when she struck them according to testimony in the woman’s manslaughter trial more than a year later.

At the hospital in 2014 Michael Sterling had a decision to make.

“They asked me about organ donation, which I really never thought about,” he told 12News recently, “you know, it was a lot of pressure to make that decision.”

But a few months earlier, at only 15-years-old, Courtney Sterling had thought about it and made her own decision.

MORE | Register to become an organ donor

When Courtney, after turning 15, went with her mom to sign up for her Texas driver’s learner permit she decided.

“That was one of the questions the lady asked.  ‘Do you want to be an organ donor?’ She was like, ‘Yeah, that would be great. I think I'm gonna do that,’” Dawn Sterling recalled recently while talking about Courtney.

That decision by a Lumberton High School freshman who, according to her obituary, had a beautiful smile and a sweet personality, saved five lives a little more than three months later.

At the hospital in February of 2014 Michael Sterling was literally left alone to make the hardest decision of his life as his daughter lay brain-dead and her mother, his wife, lay unconscious in critical condition.

In Texas a minor can decide to become a donor at any age but in the end the final decision rests with their parent or guardian.

Michael honored his daughter’s wishes and decided to donate her organs.

Later when Dawn Sterling, still recovering and grieving the loss of her daughters and unborn grandson, was told about Courtney’s organ donation she didn’t want to speak of it.

“It shocked me. And at first, I went, Man, that's good. Don't ever speak to me about it again. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to meet anybody. I could care less,” she told 12News recently.

Five months later Dawn was contemplating her life and her purpose without her daughters around.

At about the same time in North Texas Lisa Barker was alive thanks to Courtney and Michael’s decisions.

In February of 2014 within 10 hours of being placed at the top of the waiting list for a liver Barker got “the call.”

Due to a rare liver disease she had been told she had only 48 hours to live just before she learned that she would be getting a liver from a healthy 15-year-old who had died in a car wreck.

Although organ recipients and donor families usually don’t contact each other until at least a year later Barker wanted to send her donor’s family a letter.

“I just kept hearing that this mom needs this letter and she needs it now,” Barker told 12News.

So about five months after getting her new liver she made the decision to mail the letter.

When Dawn Sterling received the letter she was at the point where she had decided to take her own life.

But, after reading the hand-written letter saying Courtney’s “beautiful liver has given me a second chance at life,” she changed her mind.

“I was looking to commit suicide that weekend. And I said I won't do it. I'll see where this takes me, Dawn said as she sat next to her husband, Michael, at their home.

Barker’s life was the first of five saved by Courtney’s organs.

“James has her kidney and he's the third one and Elizabeth has the kidney and pancreas and then Bree has her heart. Hunter received her lungs,” Dawn explained as she pointed out their faces in photos at her home.

The Sterlings describe the decision to donate Courtney’s organs as the “best blessing they could have ever asked for out of the loss of their girls.”

There are more than 11,000 Texans currently on the waiting list for an organ according to the Southwest Transplant alliance.

“It's the most selfless act that someone can do to give someone else an organ,” said a representative from the transplant alliance.

More than 13 million Texans, close to 60% of all adults in the state, are on the Texas Donate Life Registry.

“So I always say that, you know, the greatest hero I never knew was my organ donor, Courtney Sterling, who saved my life," Barker said.

Courtney’s decision to become a donor has added a red “hero heart” to the driver’s licenses of many of her friends who have told the Sterling’s that they became donors because of her.

Lisa Barker and the other recipients of her organs say they are who they are today because of a decision that Courtney Sterling and then her dad made more than eight years ago just a week before Valentine’s Day.

Valentines Day is also “National Donor Day” and “is an observance dedicated to spreading awareness and education about organ, eye and tissue donation” according to DonateLife.net.

How you can become an organ donor 

If you would like to be come an organ donor you can register online by visiting Organ.org/Register and filling out a form. 

You can also register whenever you apply for or renew a Texas driver's license or ID card by simply saying yes when applying or renewing and you are asked if you'd like to be a donor.

Saying "yes" will get you added to the Donate Life Texas registry and a "hero's heart" will be added to your license or ID.

You can say "yes" when applying for a license or ID even if you may already be registered. There's no need to worry about duplicate registrations.

If you answer "no" but had previously registered to be a donor you're name wont be removed from the registry but the "hero's heart" won't appear on your Texas driver's license or ID.

While registering is not required in Texas, when you make the decision ahead of time and let your family know it can remove a huge burden from them should anything happen to you. 

Anyone of any age may register to be a donor, although, for minors, parents or guardians will make the final decision until the donor turns 18. 

MORE | Register to become an organ donor 

One donor can make a huge impact by saving up to eight lives via organ donation and healing up to 75 more people through tissue and corneal donation according to the Southwest Transplant Alliance’s website. 

Organ donation most often happens after a sudden and unexpected death so signing yourself up and making your wishes clear to your family ahead of that time can take huge burden off your family. 

The donor registration process does not include living organ donation, living bone marrow, blood or whole-body donation. Find out more about those programs here. 

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