Tragedy and joy. Organ donation bridges those emotions. For Emmitt and Charlotte Ray, tragedy struck in 2007 when their son Jason was killed. But, from that tragedy sprang joy. Because Jason was an organ donor, more than 100 other families were able to see their loved ones live.
On April 16, on what was described as a “perfect Carolina day,” Jason Ray’s legacy was celebrated as the UNC Hospitals Jason Ray Transplant Clinic was officially dedicated.
“Jason’s story was only tragic at the end,” Emmitt Ray II, Jason’s brother, told the crowd. “In his 21 years, he accomplished more than many of us will in our entire lifetimes.”
He ran with the bulls in Pamplona. He visited the Sistine Chapel. He worked on mission trips to aid the impoverished. He was a musician. He was a scholar and an honors student at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. He was a Tar Heel.
“Jason loved everything about this place, he loved everything UNC stands for,” Emmitt Ray, II, said.
He spent three years as Rameses, the Tar Heels’ mascot. In 2007, he was with the UNC Basketball team in New Jersey, the site of that year’s NCAA Tournament East Regional finals, when he was struck by a vehicle. He died three days later.
At the time of the accident, David Erving had been on the kidney transplant waiting list for five years. He received Jason’s kidney and pancreas. Nine years later, Charlotte Ray said he still calls every two weeks to talk about his health, his family, and his life.
“I can’t say thank you enough,” Erving said at the dedication ceremony. “Jason’s gift saved my life.”
Seeing the impact Jason’s gift had on the families of the people who received his organs and tissue, Charlotte and Emmitt Ray approached UNC Hospitals to discuss ways to honor their son’s legacy.
The Jason Ray Foundation was created to raise awareness of the importance of organ donation and also to provide monetary support for patients on the transplant list and their families. The goal is to raise $1 million, and Charlotte Ray says the Foundation is nearly halfway there.
David Gerber, MD, UNC Hospitals’ chief of Abdominal Transplant Surgery, said he remembers first meeting the Rays back in the summer of 2007. Though they were still reeling from the loss of their son, Gerber said he was inspired by their resolve to help others.
“That was such an emotional time for us in Chapel Hill,” Gerber said. “Now, nine years later, to permanently have Jason’s name on our clinic, I feel this is the least we could do considering all that this family has done for others.”
When Jason’s story made national headlines in 2007, nearly 50,000 people signed up to become organ donors. But, Lauren Kearns, director of the UNC Center for Transplant Care, said raising the awareness of the importance of organ donation remains vital.
“Across the country there are 120,000 people on a waiting list for an organ donation and there are 3,000 in North Carolina alone,” Kearns said. “Every organ donor has the potential to save eight lives, and impact countless others.”
Emmitt Ray said he hopes patients who receive care in the Jason Ray Transplant Clinic will learn a little about his son.
“Jason really and truly enjoyed life. He loved helping people. He’s still helping people,” Emmitt Ray said.
As the clinic’s sign was unveiled and later hung outside of the clinic, Charlotte Ray was moved by the marker’s permanence.
“I just never want Jason to be forgotten,” Charlotte Ray said. “And this helps ensure that he won’t be.”
She plans to visit the clinic often and looks forward to learning about the patients and their stories.
“We just don’t know who it may help.”
Story by Jamie Williams, UNC Health Care
Video by Carly Swain, UNC Office of Communications and Public Affairs
Published April 16, 2016