How the death of a little girl became a beautiful affirmation of life
By Joe O’Donnell, Photography by Liesa Cole
“This was Ada’s place,” her grandmother says, misty-eyed at the edge of a large rolling field across from her house in Munford in Talladega County. “She loved to play in this field.”
We are here for a reunion of sorts. Gathered on a brilliantly sunny late winter afternoon are the people whose Ada’s brief life touched in extraordinary ways. Her father, Bradley Buchanan, stepmom, Hollie Buchanan, and step-siblings, Colby, Kevin, and Katie. Her mother, Brooke Buchanan and her fiancée, Brian Hill. And Ada’s grandparents, Don and Debbie Hudgins.
The Easterlings, Eddie and Tessa, and 13-year-old daughter, Cassidy, are here, too, after driving in from Trussville. Their youngest daughter Katie holds a picture of Ada, the little girl whose donated liver, gave her a new chance at life.
Katie and the other children run across the field, trailing kites behind them. The kites catch the wind on the blustery day and soar upward into the brightest of blue skies. For a time Katie flies a kite that belonged to Ada. The little girl had only gotten to play with it once.
“Knowing that a part of my daughter saved someone else’s life, well, it is a miracle,” says Brooke Buchanan. “Katie is healthy and happy because of Ada. I feel very close to Katie. When we were in the field together the other day she came up to walk with me and she wrapped her arms around my waist. To me, it is almost like there is a part of Ada saying, ‘You’re not by yourself, Mommy. I’m still here.’
“I asked her mom if it bothered her that I wanted to be a part of her life and she said not at all. I’ve gained an extended family. It was like an instant connection. You know what everybody has been through, because Katie was sick for so long.
“Ada was a selfless child. As young as she was, she was always concerned about other people, especially her mother. She always wanted me to feel better if I was crying or feeling sad. With the connection I’ve made with Katie, I feel like she is still doing that. Every time I see Katie that is what I think about it,” Brooke says.
Adaleigh Buchanan died at the age of four on December 4, 2009. “Adaleigh was a happy and healthy four-year-old little girl. She was beautiful and brilliant. She amazed us all at how much she knew and how smart she was becoming. She was already reading very well for only four. Just days before this happened, she read a whole book (Biscuit) to me without help. She loved music. I bought her an iPod for her fourth birthday. She never went anywhere without it, and we always listened to music anywhere we went. She knew all the lyrics to our favorite songs,” says Bradley Buchanan.
On December 2, 2009, Ada’s mom, Brooke, awoke to find her little girl in a seizure. An ambulance took the child to the regional hospital and she was later transferred to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.
“When she finally made it to the PICU (Pediatric ICU) at Children’s, the doctors quickly called us back. The doctor said she arrived not breathing on her own and not responsive. He then said he did not expect her to make it through this. I think I already knew…but the sound of those words about my child felt like my heart was being ripped out. Her condition was called a Cerebral AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation), a tangle of blood vessels in her brain, a birth defect. He said that the only chance they had was if they operated immediately. We agreed,” Bradley says.
After being removed from all the sedation, pain killers, and the drug-induced coma, the doctors performed a last test to see if the little girl had any brain function. “We had still been praying for a miracle. It wasn’t meant to be. God was calling her home.
That afternoon, we said our goodbyes to our precious sweet Adaleigh Elizabeth.
I spent the last hour with her listening to her iPod playlist with her, sharing the earbuds. There is no feeling like losing your child. Adaleigh touched so many lives and will never be forgotten. She will always be my daughter and I will always be her father,” Bradley says.
Just 20 miles or so northeast of the hospital where Ada died, the Easterlings were struggling with a health crisis in their own family. Married for two decades, with a 13-year-old daughter of their own, the couple decided in 2005 to adopt a 10-month-old baby from China. The little girl they called Katie developed liver disease. It became increasingly difficult to manage and, by October 2009, Katie was placed on a list to receive a donated liver if and when a compatible one became available.
Organ donation is a growing field in medical science, yet one that consistently requires a good deal of public education. The stakes are high. One donor can help as many as 75 people by donating suitable organs and tissues.
Nationally, nearly 105,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant. A new person is added to the waiting list every 18 minutes. For an average of nineteen people per day, the wait is too long and they die before a suitable organ is available.
In Alabama, approximately 3,400 people are waiting for a transplant.
For a grieving family, organ donation (especially when the desire to become a donor has not been documented or expressed to family members) can be a difficult decision.
When Ada died, father, mother and stepmother gathered together and collectively decided that organ donation was the right choice. “Let’s face it, two divorced parents and a step-parent? Decisions of this magnitude could have been a nightmare,” Hollie Buchanan says. “But we were determined to work together and make the best decisions to honor Adaleigh. I, being the mother of a child with cystic fibrosis, knew that one day my son might be on the other end of the equation and knew of it’s importance. Together, we all agreed that Adaleigh, always so generous and loving, would have wanted no less. Our strength together has continued to carry us through this most difficult journey.” The three got tattoos to memorialize Ada’s life. Her name runs up the inside of Bradley’s arm, tattooed there, he says, so that he can always feel like he is cradling his daughter in the crook of his arm. Brooke’s shoulder sprouts a beautiful butterfly dedicated to the life of her daughter. The child’s nickname Ada is written on Hollie’s wrist.
Adaleigh became an organ donor after her death. To date, her kidneys have helped two girls, one two years old and one 17. Ada’s eyes restored the vision to two different recipients. Her heart valves will be used at a later time.
Katie Easterling, a girl born in China half a world away and living in Trussville, received Ada’s liver.
Which is why on this brilliant February day, she is running through a field holding tight to the string of the kite of Adeleigh Buchanan, a little girl who died and yet in some way lives still.
“Meeting the Easterlings has been an emotional, yet rewarding experience. Katie is so precious and has a lot of the same qualities and interests that we cherished in our little girl. So far, they are the only recipients we have met. We have heard from Adaleigh’s kidney recipient, a now 18-year-old whose life and hope was restored with Ada’s gift. We have also recently learned that the recipient of Adaleigh’s right kidney, a then 2-year-old little girl, passed away about eight months after her transplant. Her body was struggling to accept Adaleigh’s gift despite all the prayers and hopes that another life and family would be spared. This has been difficult to accept, but we find some small peace that her gift gave the family a little more time and that she is happily playing with Adaleigh,” Hollie says. “As a dad, I had hoped for more—more purpose, more lives saved through the loss of hers. I wanted to see someone get her eyes, her heart…I know God has a plan, and we may never understand it until we’re reunited with Adaleigh and it won’t matter anymore,” Bradley says.
Donors and recipients are not always aware of one another, don’t always form a relationship of any kind. “They are such a loving family and so easy to be around,” Tessa Easterling says. “They gave a part of their daughter to us. They were the same age and so similar in the things they like, music for example, and the way they think. They love Katie and want to see her grow up. They want to see their gift alive.”
So it turns out that, even more than this wind-swept field, Ada’s place is within the hearts of a whole lot of people