Former student Ava Grace Branstetter’s Donate Life flag is flying on the campus of Spanish Lake Primary for the month of April to celebrate National Donate Life Month. The six-year-old kindergartner who lost her life in a car accident last May, saved the lives of three people through organ donation.
through her death, she saved lives. At six years old, she became a hero and accomplished more than most do in a lifetime. She gave me the strength to get through it,” said Emily Branstetter, Ava’s mother.
According to Branstetter, Ava was a strong-willed child, but very sensitive and nurturing. She loved to play school and wanted to be just like her kindergarten teacher, Cathy Ragusa. “She was helpful, kind and silly with the sweetest laugh,” said Branstetter
Ava and her twin sister, Olivia, were born minutes apart and were exact opposites but did everything together, including scoring most of the goals on their soccer team. Ava loved to be outdoors and ride bikes. In fact, she was the ringleader for both her twin and older sister, Madeline. Together, the three would play outside after school until dark.
Her caring and generous heart was evident when she won the $1,000 grand prize for selling World’s Finest Chocolate at her school. She wanted to buy her mother a new house and car and give everyone on her bus $200, but settled with plans to buy her family season passes to Blue Bayou Waterpark.
Tragically, Ava sustained fatal injuries in a car accident just nine days later in front of the amusement park.
“She was a tomboy and never wore dresses,” said Branstetter. “Except, on the day of the accident, Ava got all dressed up like she knew she was going to meet Jesus.”
Ava’s mother recounts the moment she heard the prognosis that there was no brain activity. “I’m a registered nurse and worked in ICU at Our Lady of the Lake, so I knew right away what we were facing and approached them to ask about organ donation. I knew she would not recover and rather than die, she would get to live on in others,” said Branstetter.
Ava had a blood type of B+, which is hard to match plus the organ recipients had to be close enough to have surgery within four hours. It took five days to locate recipients and schedule the surgeries. This was a blessing for the family.
“We were able to spend time with Ava, lay in bed with her, take pictures and say goodbye,” said Branstetter. “I gave her a manicure and pedicure and her last bath. It was the worst possible scenario with the wreck, but the best possible resolution for us.”
After the surgery, the family watched them take the organs in a box to a limousine headed for New Orleans. Ava saved three lives by donating her two kidneys and her liver. Although they could not find an immediate donor for her heart, her heart vessels will remain frozen for five years and could help someone in the future.
Branstetter sent a picture, video and card to each anonymous recipient and has heard back from one, thus far. The recipient’s letter said she was “really proud” to receive Ava’s donation, and “I hope your family will accept my heart.” That particular phrase resonated with the family and brings them comfort.
“You are reading a card from someone who may not be alive without Ava,” said Branstetter, who has become very involved with the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA). She has found that involvement to be very therapeutic and “a lifeline God threw to me with Ava because it gave me hope that something fantastic, a wonderful blessing for others, came from her death.
Our Lady of the Lake Hospital flew Ava’s Donate Life flag from the time they pronounced her brain dead until the surgery to remove her organs was over. Then, they gave the flag to the family. That flag is now raised at the school Ava loved so much. In addition, an angel trumpet tree was planted on the Spanish Lake Primary campus with a heart border in memory of Ava.
Ava’s sisters, Olivia and Madeline, who both attend Spanish Lake, are coping well. “Spanish Lake Primary has been incredible and amazing for our family. We could not have asked for better support,” said Branstetter, who has bonded with Cathy Ragusa, Ava and Olivia’s former teacher. Ragusa lost a child three months before Ava’s death, and they have formed a mutual support system.
Branstetter hopes that by sharing Ava’s story, others will consider organ donation in the future. For more information and to register as an organ donor, visit www.lopa.org.