When Aria Autry found her 6-year-old son’s muddy footprints on the hallway stairs, she didn’t get mad. And when she found the boy’s name, Bryce, scrawled in yellow crayon on his sister’s bedroom door, she wasn’t angry.
The blemishes around the Bozeman home she shares with her husband, Ian, and their five other children were reminders of the gregarious and inquisitive youngster who died suddenly last week.
On March 25, Bryce fell out of a wagon. He wasn’t breathing, his heart stopped beating. He died a week later from a Chiari malformation, a rare condition that causes brain tissue to protrude into the spinal canal.
Aria now wears a white, ceramic heart on a thin chain around her neck. She and Ian also carry little ceramic hearts in their pockets — gifts from LifeCenter Northwest, to which the couple donated their little boy’s organs.
They rub the little hearts between their fingers when they miss Bryce.
The Autrys chose to donate Bryce’s organs because they knew their misfortune could help others.
“It’s tragic from our standpoint,” Ian said. “But if it can help somebody else keep their little angel alive, then it’s all worth it to us.”
Because the symptoms of Chiari malformation — dizziness, neck pain, balance problems, blurred or double vision and slurred speech, among others — typically don’t show up until late childhood or adulthood, it was a shock for the Autrys to learn their son had the affliction.
“It was a ticking time bomb waiting to happen,” Aria said, sitting in Bozeman’s Dinosaur Park on Wednesday — where Bryce, her youngest child, loved to play.
A natural at hockey, Bryce wanted to be a firefighter, she said.
His parents and teacher described him as friendly, caring, compassionate and outgoing.
Bryce once helped a fellow kindergartener, who was confused on the school bus, Aria said. And neighbors repeatedly told her they will miss his friendly greetings.
She called him her little monkey, her buddy.
“He had a contagious smile that brightened our classroom and school,” Whittier School kindergarten teacher Terese Alexander said. “Bryce was always eager to help others and demonstrated strong effort in everything he did. We will remember him as a fun-loving, energetic, bright boy. We will miss him dearly.”
The Autrys are humble when speaking about the organ donation and reject being labeled as brave. They said speaking publicly about Bryce helps with their grief.
“Yes, it’s tragic for us, but so many others out there are hurting,” Ian said.
Friendly with many firefighters, Ian said the care Bryce received from first responders enabled the organ donations.
“Yes, they didn’t save Bryce,” Ian said. “But they saved many lives. If they didn’t do CPR and respond so quickly,” his organs wouldn’t have remained viable to save others.
Doctors sent Bryce’s heart, liver and kidneys to four different states.
Still, Ian has his moments.
“Bryce made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “For him, I can hold myself together for an interview. There are so many people in need. If we can get one person to donate, then it’s worth it.”
Chaplain Ken Mottram is the manager of spiritual care at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital. Among other responsibilities, his office counsels people who may want to donate their loved ones’ organs.
“The main message for me, in the midst of this tragic situation, in the loss of their son, this family can know that his death brought life to so many others,” he said. “Good can come out of his death. This was a tragic, sudden event that family will be dealing with for years. It’s a wonderful legacy that this family is doing.”
Jodi Hausen can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2630.