A Legacy of Life
In June last year, the Ackerman family’s world was turned upside down. With DonateLife Week at the end of this month, this brave family is now focused on turning their pain into a powerful message, by using their story to encourage others to have the conversation that could save lives.
As I sit at the kitchen table chatting to his grandmother Sonya, four-year-old Ollie Ackerman approaches her for a hug. As he stands before her, fiddling with his Superman -emblazoned t-shirt, she smiles and lifts him onto her lap.
“Daddy was a hero like Superman, wasn’t he?” she says with a sad glint in her eyes, but Ollie’s face beams in response.
“They’re very inquisitive,” Sonya explains, “Millie’s particularly good at picking up when you’re having a down day. We try not to get upset in front of them, but she knows and she’ll come up and give you a cuddle and say, ‘Please don’t be sad, I miss Daddy too’.”
Ollie and Millie’s father James was just 25 years old when his life was tragically cut short in June last year, after he was seriously injured on the football field just four minutes into a game. Despite being rushed to hospital, James passed away in the intensive care unit two days later, leaving his family, Sunshine Coast residents and the tight-knit rugby league community in shock.
It was a comforting thing to know he’s not going to be completely gone; he’s going to live on in other people.”
“Sonya always said the field was the one place she never thought she would have to protect him,” says Saraa, James’s young wife and the mother of his children.
“For whatever reason – he’d never done it before – James came over and kissed the kids goodbye before the game. He never usually did that, but I’m glad he did. That’s the last memory I want them to have of him, because that’s a happy memory.”
As the pair set about describing James for me, they paint a picture of an incredibly generous and loving young man who looked for the positives in life, no matter what.
“If you were an opposing player on the football field, you would think he was a big tough guy,” says Sonya. “Off the field though, he was a humble giant. He had the biggest heart and family was everything to him.”
“Every single time we did the shopping, he would donate whatever spare change we had into the children’s hospital donation box,” says Saraa.
“That could be our last dollar and he’d still put it in there.”
He also regularly donated to the Starlight Foundation and Give Me 5 For Kids, often saying to Saraa that he liked to think that if something ever happened to their kids, someone would return the favour.
“No matter how bad he was feeling or whatever we were going through, he would would always remind us there are always people out there who need things more than we need them, or are going through hell,” says Sonya.
“He used to say that so often. I’ll never forget the first time I was standing at the cemetery and I looked at the grave and said to him, ‘There’s no one worse off now, mate’. And then I looked up and there was a little seven-year-old buried next to him. It was almost like he was turning my head and telling me that, ‘Actually, there is someone worse off, Mum’.”
It therefore made sense to James’s family that his generous spirit live on, so they allowed him to give the ultimate gift; one that would save the lives of two people, restore sight for two others and drastically improve the lives of countless more – including six babies.
“We had discussed it openly hundreds of times, so we knew it was what he would have wanted,” says Saraa.
“It was a comforting thing to know he’s not going to be completely gone; he’s going to live on in other people,” adds Sonya.
If any of us were waiting on that transplant to come, how over the moon would you be to finally get that call, as a family member, that you’re not going to lose your loved one.”
1241 Australians received an organ transplant in 2015, as the result of the generosity of 435 organ donors, whose families agreed to donation at the time of their loved one’s death. One donor has the potential to transform the lives of more than 10 people.
One such life was a strong influence in the decision to donate James’s organs and tissue. Tahlia Murray was born with a liver disease that left her incredibly ill, and as the sister of two of James’s close friends, her presence shone a light on the importance of organ donation for him and his family.
“She would come to every football game with tubes all over her, and that’s what started the conversation at our dinner table,” says Sonya.
At just three years old, Tahlia underwent a life-saving liver transplant, and as a result, she is now a healthy 15-year-old living a normal life. But having witnessed the sadness, hope, and then joy of
Tahlia’s family first-hand, Sonya and Michael (James’s father) became firm believers in organ donation.
In the wake of James’s death, the whole family is now an advocate for the DonateLife Network’s message of having ‘the conversation’.
“We’re not going to dictate to people that you need to become an organ donor,” says Sonya.
“But your family need to know what your wishes are. Because just like us, you never know when, or even think that you’re going to be in that position.
“We don’t really speak of it to Ollie and Millie yet, as they’re a bit too little, but when they’re older we’ll tell them about the wonderful things that Daddy did for other people.”
DonateLife Week will take place from 31 July to 7 August, and while it encourages people to sign up to the Australian Organ Donor Register, the main aim is to get people discussing what their wishes are with the people who have the final say – their family. Use the week as an opportunity to start a conversation with your family about organ donation and what your wishes on the matter are. You can register as a donor on the Australian Organ Donor Register through Medicare online or by visiting a Medicare service centre, but it will ultimately come down to your family’s consent.
PROTECTING A LEGACY
Following James’s football accident, his younger brother Thomas, with the help of a high profile former NRL player, whom at the time of printing can’t be named, has designed headgear with the intent of keeping James’s legacy alive while protecting others. Launched on the anniversary of James’s death, 22 June, the tribute to James includes the DonateLife logo, Aboriginal artwork representing James’s heritage as part of the Wiradjuri tribe, James’s name and jersey number (eight), and his handprint. Madison Sport has produced the headgear, with Rebel Sport and Amart All Sports among the retailers who will stock it for the start of the 2017 season.