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One man dies, and four others may be saved

While Citrus County went about its business Monday, a fascinating, beat-the-clock medical drama was unfolding in Crystal River.

It started when a 19-year-old man was declared brain dead after shooting himself in the head in Homosassa. Then, his grieving mother stepped forward and asked that her son's organs go to those in need.

There were tests and telephone calls and papers to sign. By late night, surgeons from Miami and Birmingham, Ala., were flying chartered jets into the Crystal River Airport, which accommodated the special after-hours trips.

In the pre-dawn hours Tuesday _ little more than 24 hours after the saga began _ a limousine and ambulance sat outside Seven Rivers Community Hospital. They were waiting to race the doctors back to their planes, into the air, and home to their operating rooms, where they would use the man's heart and liver to help save other patients' lives.

Hours after that, a commercial flight would carry the man's kidneys to two other states where donors eagerly awaited transplants.

By day's end, four people in four states owed a debt of gratitude to the man and his family.

The tale would not be so spectacular in Tampa or Jacksonville or even Gainesville. Organ procurement is a common occurrence in big cities, where hospitals are equipped to handle severe trauma patients and others who typically become donors.

But the process is almost unheard of in semirural Citrus County, where two hospitals typically direct trauma patients to larger cities. In recent memory, officials can recall only a handful of organ donors being handled at Seven Rivers or Citrus Memorial Hospital.

On Monday, Crystal River's name was being bandied about nationwide as doctors worked feverishly to match the organ donor with recipients.

"It really was kind of crazy. Everybody seemed so glad that something so good could come out of a tragedy," said Danielle Cornell, organ procurement coordinator for the University of Florida Organ Procurement Program. Cornell helped orchestrate the events.

It all started about 10:45 p.m. Sunday when a Citrus County 911 operator picked up a shocking call.

A man, Billy Wilson, had fired one shot from a .22-caliber rifle into his head. Paramedics weren't sure whether it was suicide or an accident. Tuesday, after the autopsy, officials still didn't know what had happened.

Wilson, who lived in Orlando, shot himself at 7294 W Vineyard Drive in Homosassa. He was staying there with his aunt and her boyfriend, Robert Warr, who called 911.

Wilson arrived at Seven Rivers in bad shape. Cornell, with the organ procurement center, got a phone call at home about 1 a.m.

By that time, Wilson was on life support and there was no sense bringing him to Shands Hospital or another trauma center. Cornell kept in contact through the morning hours.

By 4 a.m., two doctors had declared Wilson brain dead. Cornell left Gainesville about 7 a.m. for Crystal River.

Doctors kept Wilson on a ventilator, which ensured that blood and oxygen would continue to flow to the organs, thus keeping them viable for transplant.

Meanwhile, Cornell embarked on the most difficult part of her job: talking to the deceased man's mother. The woman was tearful but composed. She gave her consent for the procurement.

With that consent, Cornell jumped into her duties.

Doctors ran tests to gauge the condition of the organs. Cornell entered information _ Wilson's blood type, race, age, details of his health and so on _ into the national computer system that surgeons use to track the availability of organs.

To her surprise, Cornell found six "perfect matches" for Wilson's kidneys.

"Six perfect matches doesn't happen very often at all. Sometimes you'll get one. But six is highly unusual," she said.

The kidneys were sent out of the area. One went to a patient in Minnesota; Cornell did not have information on the second patient.

Doctors have as long as 48 hours to transplant a kidney, so there was no need for surgeons to rush the organs to their destination; Cornell said they were sent by courier and onto a commercial flight.

Cornell didn't have as much luck _ or time _ with the heart and liver.

Surgeons have four hours to transplant a heart, Cornell said, and between 12 and 24 hours for the liver. First priority for those organs goes to local hospitals, since the timing is so crucial.

A hospital in Miami said it wanted the liver and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital took the heart.

Then, after all that work, it appeared the entire deal might go sour.

Wilson's father, Billy Sr., arrived from Arkansas about 7 p.m. He was out of state picking up furniture, and had driven all night Sunday after hearing the news.

He was not happy to hear that Wilson's mother, his former wife, had consented to the organ procurement.

"As soon as I found out it happened, I drove back," Wilson said. "I didn't like it, because they didn't say anything to me."

"He did feel like he just wanted to be a part of the decision-making," Cornell said. She explained the situation and gave the father time to think. He eventually consented.

"He just needed that explanation. He needed to know that we didn't purposely leave him out," Cornell said.

"I want to help other people if I could," Wilson said.

The Miami surgeons _ Cornell could not disclose the name of the hospital _ came in first. They flew to the Crystal River Airport and took a chartered limousine to the hospital.

As they prepared to remove Wilson's liver and kidneys, Tom Davis was falling asleep. Then he received a telephone call and was thrust into the excitement.

Davis is president of Crystal Aero Group, Inc., the company that operates the county-owned Crystal River Airport. The Sheriff's Office asked him to contact a pilot in Birmingham who needed help getting a jet to Crystal River.

Davis called the pilot about 11:15 p.m., then headed for the airport. This pilot, unlike the one who flew into the airport from Miami, needed fuel, which only Davis or one of his employees can dispense.

Davis met the twin-engine jet as it landed about 12:45 a.m. A waiting ambulance rushed the four medical personnel and their equipment to Seven Rivers; meanwhile, Davis pumped 160 gallons of fuel into the plane.

The Birmingham surgeons joined their Miami counterparts in the operating room. The Miami doctors took the liver and kidneys; the Alabama contingent took the heart.

The Miami group got into the limousine and headed for the airport. That vehicle was cheaper than an ambulance and more practical since they did not need to speed back to their plane.

Later, the Birmingham contingent climbed back into the ambulance and raced for the jet. Time was crucial for them, so the ambulance ran with lights and sirens blaring.

By sunup Tuesday, Cornell was recuperating and everyone involved in the process was reflecting upon what had happened. Cornell credited contributions from law enforcement, emergency medical services, the staff at Seven Rivers hospital and all of the doctors.

Davis, from the airport, might have best summed up the feelings of those involved.

"It kind of gives you a good feeling," he said. "It's nice to know that people are responding. Someone, hopefully, is appreciating it today."