Through pain and emptiness, Joel’s donation gives his wife peace

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Joel Stafford, Donor

Through pain and emptiness, Joel’s donation gives his wife peace

Posted April 14, 2017

joel-staffordBrittney and Joel Stafford

As I stumble to find the right words, I know there aren’t any to describe the warmth in my heart for what my husband did to save and touch the lives of many. Let me introduce myself, my name is Brittney. I am 30 years old from Kentucky. I am a wife, a mother, and now a widow.

I met the love of my life on January 3, 2007. We fell head over heels in love so fast we didn’t know what hit us. From day one, we never wanted to be apart. Within the first week, he moved in with me. Six months later, we started trying to make our family grow. I already had a two-year-old son. My husband Joel took to Camden instantly, and Cam took to him as well. After what seemed like the longest six months ever, we found out we were expecting. Our daughter Annaliese was born in 2008, and she completed our perfect little family. One thing you must know about my husband, he had the biggest love and passion for the river. Any water really. The lake, ocean, pool, he didn’t care. He just loved the water. But more than anything, he loved being a towboater. He was so good at what he did. He started riding towboats as soon as he turned 18. It was a very hard lifestyle for a young couple with two small children. He did take a little break from towboating when Anna was 1. He hated coming home and having to let her warm up to him. She was so young, and it would take time after being gone 30 days. After she got older, of course, he was ready to be back on the river. I worried so much every time he left. Every single day, and every second of the day. I knew towboating was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and I worried so much he would get hurt out there. I always told him to be very careful. We never went more than a couple hours without speaking unless we were asleep.

Joel and I got married January 15, 2016. It was the happiest day of my life. We had already been together for nine years and had a child. But for so long, it was just a piece of paper to us. We just didn’t take that step since I had already changed my last name to his, while pregnant. We always felt like we were husband and wife. But we didn’t make it to our first wedding anniversary.

It was a day just like any other, September 6, 2016. It was time for my husband to go back out on the boat for 28 days. I begged him not to. I wanted him home. I missed him so much while he was gone. He offered to stay and look for another job. Feeling guilty, I told him no, that I couldn’t take away his biggest passion. I couldn’t be selfish. I wish every second now that I would have. I had to work that day and couldn’t take off to drive him to the hotel he would stay at. Joel called his dad and asked him to take him to Missouri. He always stayed the night in Arnold and would meet the crew the next morning in the lobby. I took my lunch break at 10 instead of 11 so we could say our goodbyes. He picked me up from work, and we went home. A couple minutes later his dad pulled up and he loaded his luggage in his truck. We went back inside for our hugs and kisses, he squeezed me tight and said “I love you more than anything in his world Sugarbutt. (that’s what he always called me) I am going to miss you so much, but I will be home in 28 days. It will be over before you know it.”

As a tear rolled down my cheek, I said “I love you more baby, I will be right here waiting.”

He walked out, I followed behind, as he turned one more time to look at me before getting in the truck and said, “I love you” again. That was the last I love you, the last hug, the last kiss, I ever got. I never could have dreamed it was goodbye forever. We texted back and forth all day. He was in the hotel watching Ridiculousness, he said, and getting ready to go to dinner with his fellow deckhands.

After dinner, he and a co-worker decided to cross the street to get an energy drink for the next morning. While crossing a seven-lane busy highway, Joel made it almost all the way across when an oncoming vehicle didn’t see him and struck him. His friend ran over to him and rolled him over. He didn’t have a pulse. A nurse who saw what happened stopped her car and gave him CPR. Moments later, paramedics arrived and transported Joel to the hospital, where he died 30 minutes later. I got the call just before he passed, and they gave me no information. I didn’t know whether he was OK or conscious or even what hospital they were taking him to. And I was 3 hours away. I quickly called the police department and got the name of the hospital. I was frantic and crying and screaming, “Oh God no!”

By the time I reached the doctor, Joel was gone. My whole world was gone. I was absolutely in shock and devastated. That night, I got a call from Mid-America Transplant. I knew my husband was an organ donor, but we hadn’t ever discussed it really. At 30 and 32 years old, we just didn’t think something like this would happen. I never dreamed I would have to bury my husband at 30.

He had the biggest personality, so full of life, so friendly and loving, the biggest smile and laugh that could make everything OK. 

There were so many hard questions I would have to answer just hours after getting the news. I stayed on the phone for what seemed like hours answering them all best I could. I told them I couldn’t answer anymore, and we would have to continue the next morning. They explained time was very limited. The next morning they called back pretty early. They told me Joel could donate several organs and tissues, including bone, skin, cornea and heart valves. Through all this pain and emptiness, I had just a tiny bit of peace knowing Joel saved lives with his decision to donate tissue and organs. It makes my heart so full to know that two people’s sight was restored, among the other recipients whose lives were affected and saved.

I know God had a different plan for my Joelee. I don’t understand, and it’s not fair. But he touched so many lives, not only after death but before. He had the biggest personality, so full of life, so friendly and loving, the biggest smile and laugh that could make everything OK. He truly had a heart of gold and now a piece of that heart remains here with me. I may not be able to see or hear or feel him, but he lives on in my heart where I hold our memories closest.

Until we meet again, because this isn’t forever. I love you forever and always baby!

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