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Justin Duffy was always fascinated by who his 11-year-old daughter would grow up to be. She was strong-willed, funny, outdoorsy and “quite a character.”

For her part, Ella Duffy wanted to live in a camper, with a Chevy truck and her puppy, Fridley, when she grew up.

“They definitely don’t make many kids like her. She was very kind-hearted, but she was tough and she didn’t put up with bullying or things like that,” Justin said.

Ella died on Sept. 23, 2020, in a side-by-side ATV accident near her home. She left behind her older sister, Alivia, 15, her parents, Justin, 42, and Emily Duffy, 38, and a wealth of friends.

Over a year later, her parents are still grieving the loss. The Duffys, of Livingston, have found some small measure of consolation — and a sense of pride — in Ella’s last act: donating her eyes.

On the evening Ella died, Justin and Emily were asked if they’d consider donating her corneas — a small layer of tissue on the outer eye — and her heart valves.

The Duffys had never considered whether they would donate their child’s organs or tissue. They were lucky, Justin said, that they simultaneously reached a mutual decision.

It was a quick decision. It’s what Ella would have wanted.

“Her life is continuing to help people,” Emily said. “It wasn’t for nothing.”

Ella Duffy

Emily and Justin Duffy pose for a photo in their home on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. They decided to donate their daughter's heart tissue and corneas after Ella Duffy died in a side-by-side ATV accident on Sept. 23, 2020.

The seventh grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Livingston had a giving spirit, a strong sense of empathy and always looked for ways to help others, her parents said.

She landed in the principal’s office last year for sticking up for a bullied classmate and giving the bully a whack. She wasn’t in trouble at home — Justin was proud of her sense of right and wrong.

Her corneas, a small dime-shaped layer of tissue on the outer eye, went to a 37-year-old man and 38-year-old woman, both from California.

“It would’ve been an injustice to her for us not to have said yes to that,” Justin said. “If you were able to poll her on that, she would have definitely said, of course donate whatever you can.”

In Montana, Ella is one of many people who ultimately donate their corneal tissues.

In 2019, SightLife — the only eye bank working in Montana — had 600 donors. That translates to about 1,200 corneal donations.

Those donations go to people across the U.S. in need of corneas, according to the Seattle-based eye bank SightLife.

The transplant itself is 95% effective at restoring people’s sight and in the U.S., 100% of cornea needs are met, according to the Eye Bank Association of America.

A cornea donation can restore sight to people who have corneal degeneration, or other diseases that cause corneal blindness or visual impairment, or people who have damaged corneas from trauma or infection.

“I wish we could’ve given more of her honestly,” Emily said. “Because that’s what she would have wanted.”

For Justin, the organ donation is a small piece of Ella’s story — while he’s proud of it, it’s something he doesn’t like to talk about.

“Even the tissue donation, you know, that makes us proud, but not near as much as Ella’s stories,” Justin said.

He prefers to remember her as the lively girl who would hike miles in rough terrain in the Paradise Valley with him to find elk antler sheds.

Despite its brevity, Ella lived her life fully, her parents said.

“I used to joke with Justin that we’d need to do a maternity test because I couldn’t believe that I had such a cool kid,” Emily said.

Ella was outdoorsy. She’d go hiking, camping and hunting with her dad. At home, “she was always railing around outside doing something,” Justin said.

Ella Duffy

Emily Duffy points out inspirational rocks that her daughter, Ella Duffy, and friends painted to place at trailheads as she walks through her daughter's room on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. Ella Duffy died on Sept. 23, 2020, in a side-by-side ATV accident.

Ella Duffy

Emily Duffy walks through her daughter's room, pointing out the water cup still on the bed-side table on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. Ella Duffy died on Sept. 23, 2020, in a side-by-side ATV accident.

The summer before she died, she was determined to live inside the family camper, planning on paying “rent” to her parents, but that only lasted a few hours — there’s no cellphone reception in the camper.

Emily said despite the pandemic, Ella did a lot in her final year. She went salmon fishing in Alaska, painted parts of her bedroom floor and played the Queen of Hearts in her school play.

They still laugh that she dropped an “F-bomb” onstage during the school performance of Alice and Wonderland when her co-star forgot his lines.

Emily refuses to clean a stain in Ella’s room, where she threw green slime into her moving ceiling fan “to see what it would do.”

One of her proudest accomplishments happened just months before her death. She trained her puppy, Fridley, to be a hound dog. At 10 years old, she won the high point dog award at the Montana State Houndsmen Association Spring Field Trial.

Over a year later, as the Duffys reminiscence on the classic antics of Ella, they’re grateful they donated her tissue. They’re also thankful they agreed on donating it, now urging parents to have that conversation before they’re at the hospital.

“Had that evening happened differently and we disagreed, how horrible would that have been,” Justin said.

Ann Olson, a legal assistant from Helena, has already spoken to her seven-year-old daughter about organ donation. She’s explained the process and what it might mean for recipients.

“She understands that I’ve had surgery in my eyes and what that means and how it’s changed my life,” Olson said.

Olson, 45, was diagnosed with keratoconus, a disease that affects the cornea, when she was young. The disease can progress with age, and by 10 years old she was visually impaired.

By her 20s the disease had progressed to the point of needing a transplant. She has received two corneal transplants, one for each eye.

After her final transplant her life improved dramatically, she said. She went from barely being able to make out people’s facial expressions, to seeing with 20/20 vision— although she does still use eyeglasses.

For her, the biggest impact was feeling surefooted with her daughter, Tierra.

“I was able to share things with my daughter. I could take her outside, take her up in the mountains or to the river. It impacted her as well, because mom could do things with her,” she said.

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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