John E.

"My name is Cynthia Erickson, I am an Athabascan Indian raised in Ruby, Alaska and I now live in Tanana, Alaska. My husband is Dale Erickson and we have three children and own a general grocery store in Tanana.

My parents are Harold and Florence Esmailka, my sister is Ginger (Jay) deLima and my younger brother is James Esmailka. My little brother was John Charles Edward Esmailka. He was only 18 years old and had just graduated from high school when he gave his life to a girl he didn’t know. John was shot in the head trying to protect the girl from her boyfriend. John was the fourth child my family has lost. John had just finished his first year of carpentry training, completed his first job interviews, and had his first girlfriend. He had just begun to really live his life.

John loved music, his mom’s cooking, had a passion for reading, loved his family and friends, was a very handsome young man and had a great sense of humor. We miss him terribly. Every occasion – holidays, birthdays, graduations, wedding, changes of seasons, etc. – we think of what John used to do and enjoyed and what he would be doing today and in the future.

John was flown to Anchorage because of his injuries and we knew it was only a matter of time. As a family, we decided for John to be an organ donor. It opened up a whole new world for us. At first it was a little nerve racking and intimidating just because it’s something that no one wants to have to go through. But, after meeting with the donor people we became more educated on the process. We were happy to find out that the girl that John tried to save was also a donor! But, we were surprised on the low number of Alaska Natives that were donors.

It was explained to us that we had an option of finding out in the future the recipients of John’s organs and the ability to meet them and their family. For us it was a light at the end of the tunnel. We still have something of our son and brother; he’s out there giving life a second time.

Today I am happy to have received a letter from the donor foundation of where John’s organs have been sent and the progress. Instead of having nothing and being filled with sadness, we have life and hope. Someday our family would like to meet the recipient of John’s organs and hopefully they might come back to our village and become a little bit part of our lives.

At first, the decision was a very, very hard one and it’s something no one talks about or even thinks about and then to be shocked into death again a million questions arise. How is it done? Who will do it? How do you say goodbye? Will the incisions be obvious? Can we bring him back to the village and dress him? Today we can be proud instead of being empty, lonely, and sad that we have something good that came out of a tragic loss and ordeal.

My family and I want to encourage everyone to think twice about your own death and your family members. Tell your family that you would like to be a donor. Put it on your license, write it in your will, tell someone, it only takes a second and it is well worth it. Today, if possible, we eagerly anticipate the meeting of our new family members. I only wish we were educated years ago, then we would have something left from my two brothers and sister who have also passed on.

All through the process and funeral we still questioned if donating John’s organs was the right thing to do. At John’s funeral, his head start teacher gave a speech. She raved about John and told great stories, and one thing she said she’d always remember was when John asked her, “Do butterflies have thoughts?” That evening after the potlatch, we were all visiting at my sister Ginger’s house and her husband Jay was working in his shop below their home, and out of nowhere a big beautiful butterfly appeared. Imagine, in the middle of January, -20 below zero outside in a small frozen village. When having constant subconscious reflections on the whole ordeal, I kept saying that I need to do something, I need to share my story, I need to educate people. So I called and met with the donor program and volunteered my story and help to educate people. At the end of the meeting I had to share the Butterfly Story. Once I was finished, they all looked at me with a surprised look and asked if I knew that the butterfly was a symbol for the donor program. They told me that the butterfly symbolizes the caterpillar evolving into a beautiful butterfly, That was when I knew that we had made the right decision!"