Brenda Stahl remembers her third child as being different from her other three sons. 

Issac Trevino was more outspoken and more loving than the others, strong-willed and a fast learner, she said. When he was born in 2003, “he just changed everything.” 

And when Trevino died on March 17, he changed the life of another. 

Diagnosed just eight months prior with stage 4 testicular cancer that had already spread to his brain, Trevino spent his 18th birthday in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

His health improved by October, and Trevino renewed his driver’s license — posing for a new photo still with a full head of hair — and volunteered to be an organ and tissue donor. A month later, tests showed the aspiring electrician was cancer-free. 

Then on Christmas Eve, Trevino lost all feeling in his legs and couldn’t stand or walk. His mother rushed him to the hospital, where surgeons removed a brain tumor. 

Stahl eventually took him home to recover. “I’m all they have, they’re all I have, and I’m not going to let my son go into a rehab [hospital],” she said. 

But by the end of February, Trevino was back in the hospital, bleeding and in pain. Another tumor was found and he had developed pneumonia. 

“‘I don’t want to do this again. Don’t bring me back if something should happen,’” Stahl said, repeating her son’s words to her as doctors put him on a ventilator. He agreed to give it three days, she said. Trevino died the same day. 

But weeks before, the young man had gathered his family into his bedroom and told them that if he died, he wanted to donate his organs and that he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes scattered at the beach. He wanted a family barbecue rather than a funeral. 

“He wasn’t angry. He never questioned why,” Stahl said. “He said if [his experience] helped just one person, it was worth it.”

After his passing, Trevino’s corneas were recovered to restore another person’s sight. Because of his cancer, other organs were not able to be transplanted. Stahl had made sure the hospital knew about her son’s wishes and the decision he had made to be an organ donor.

She weeps at the memory but is determined to share her son’s story so that others will become organ donors.

An urn with remains of Issac Trevino sits near the Gulf of Mexico waters where his ashes were scattered by his family. He wore the pink beanie during much of his hospital stay. Credit: Courtesy / Brenda Stahl

Connie Thigpen, nurse director at the Baptist Medical Center in downtown San Antonio, said Trevino’s actions, and that of others like him who register as organ donors, relieve their families of extra grief and stress that come following a loved one’s death. 

And “most of the time, family will honor their loved one’s wishes,” Thigpen said.

The most common way to register as an organ donor is when obtaining or renewing a driver’s license the way Trevino did. 

Texas residents also can register online at Donate Life Texas, one of three organ procurement organizations in the state, or when purchasing a hunting or fishing license, said Clarissa Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance. Then let your family members know. 

“We always say share your ‘why’ with your family,” Thompson said. “When you do that, it helps expedite that process and can lift the burden off the family of having to say yes or no” to organ donation.

A visitor observes the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance’s Wall of Heroes, which honors the lives of organ donors. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The alliance’s surveys show that 9 in 10 people support donation, but when an individual has to make that decision for a loved one, they are less likely to give consent. 

One organ donor can save up to eight lives, and 75 people can have their quality of life improved significantly with donated tissue or corneas, according to the alliance. In the United States, about 110,000 men, women and children await lifesaving organ transplants and 20 people die each day while waiting.

More than half of the national waiting list is made up of individuals from ethnic groups with higher rates of diabetes and hypertension, diseases that damage the kidneys. Though organs aren’t matched by race or ethnicity, transplants usually are more successful if the donor and recipient have similar genetics. 

In Texas, the waiting list for organ transplants numbers 10,000, with 8,000 of those people in need of a new kidney. Alliance data shows about 40% of them are Hispanic.

While the pandemic has impacted many aspects of medicine and health care, it has not significantly affected organ donation, Thompson said.

Patients who are COVID-positive at death cannot be organ donors. But because the organ recovery site Center for Life opened at University Hospital in 2018, the organization has its own operating rooms, staff and equipment for organ recovery and is not solely reliant on local hospitals, which makes the organ procurement process more efficient, Thompson said.

San Antonio hospital systems help by contacting the organ procurement group whenever nurses and doctors believe their patient could serve as a potential donor or is a registered donor. Hospitals like Baptist also work to encourage donor registrations. 

“When you work [in the intensive care unit and the emergency department] like I have, you see so many bad things,” Thigpen said. 

But knowing there is an opportunity to help someone else, she said, “that is definitely a key portion of healing, and your loved one is not ever gone because they’ve given life to another.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.