May 21, 2024

Healt Hid

Because health is very important to us

Gathering at Carle BroMenn in Normal shows impact of organ and tissue donation

12 min read

NORMAL — Melissa Bornder said sunflowers “stand tall and look to the sun for light,” and that’s exactly what her late son Elijah Luczaj did.

One of the first flowers he planted at her house was a sunflower, she said, adding that she still has a photo of Elijah with that sunflower. He wanted the seeds from it to sprout into more flowers, and they eventually shared those seeds with family.

Bornder shared these memories of her only biological son Wednesday after returning to Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal — this time, as an ambassador for the Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network.


Melissa Bornder shows off a photo of her son, Elijah Luczaj, during a flag-raising ceremony for National Donate Life Month on April 17 at Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

Elijah headed into a wooded area for exploration on Oct. 31, 2022, and was found unresponsive in a shallow creek nearby. His parents had found him by tracking his phone GPS data to a location off of Illinois Route 9 west of Bloomington, and they started CPR until paramedics arrived and took him to BroMenn.

Bornder said Elijah was at BroMenn for just a few hours before being transferred for trauma care at Carle’s sister hospital in Urbana. She noted the quality of care at both facilities was “impeccable.”

“I’ve not stepped foot here in 18 months, and it’s scary and it’s sad. But, I’m brave because my son was a hero,” she said.

Doctors told the Bornder family on Nov. 2, 2022, that Elijah had lost brain activity. His family then allowed doctors to look into whether his organs could be donated. Elijah died Nov. 3, 2022, and on Nov. 6, 2022, his kidneys were donated to two men, one in his 20s, and one in his 40s.


Melissa Bornder, far right, speaks about her late son Elijah Luczaj during a flag-raising ceremony for National Donate Life Month on April 17 at Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

Bornder said dozens of hospital staff flanked the halls leading to the operating room for Elijah’s “honor walk.”

“They understood my heartbreak and silently thanked Elijah for the greatest gifts he could possibly give,” she said.

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A lasting legacy

A single organ donor can save several lives.

In 2023, four organ donors saved eight lives at Carle BroMenn, according to hospital statements. Over in Urbana, Carle Foundation Hospital had 19 organ donors saving 37 lives that year. Together, the facilities also had 91 tissue donors that year.

For several years, Carle has ceremoniously honored National Donate Life Month in April by raising the Gift of Hope flag. In April 2023, Bloomington’s Adam Lovell spoke at BroMenn about how his life was improved by receiving the donation of a kidney and pancreas, after waiting more than three years for a donor.

Over two dozen attended Wednesday’s ceremony, which included the Bornder family and families of other organ donors, plus hospital staff, caregivers and administrators. Colleen Kannaday, president of Carle BroMenn, said what’s most important is calling attention to the importance of organ and tissue donation.


Melissa Bornder, left, speaks about her late son Elijah Luczaj with the Rev. Christine McNeal on April 17 at Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal. McNeal is Carle’s senior staff chaplain and coordinator for faith community relations.

“It’s also part of healing, not only for the families, but also for our staff to be able to see good come out of such challenging times and to really be able to make a difference for others,” she said.

It’s a very emotional time when a decision for organ donation is made and a loved one passes on, she said, so a lot of bonding takes place for those involved.

Shelly Hillary, manager of the intensive care unit at BroMenn, said raising the Gift of Hope flag is a powerful way to honor selfless donors and their families, and represents a lasting legacy.

She also told The Pantagraph it’s important for people to take time to register their intent to be an organ donor.

“It’s one less decision a family has to make in a time of crisis,” she said.


A Gift of Hope flag was raised on April 17 during a National Donate Life Month ceremony at Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

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Seeing sunflowers

Elijah is remembered as a person who loved all living things, including his family, dogs, and plants, in particular. He lived with his mother and stepfather, Bill Bornder, in Creve Coeur, and was a stepbrother to Trinity Bornder, 19, and Betty Bornder, 14.

Elijah was a senior at East Peoria Community High School, where he played tuba, trombone and trumpet with the Marching Raiders Band. Melissa Bornder said she’s heard constant stories of how Elijah helped out his bandmates.

She also said Elijah wasn’t a typical 17-year-old boy, as he’d step away from video gaming to get enthused with nature. She said he enjoyed tending to a garden of corn, beans, gourds, pumpkins and sunflowers.

Elijah’s cause of death was ruled as an accidental drowning, according to a Carle news statement. While determining exactly what preceded his death is impossible, Bornder said she believes her son slipped in a muddy creek bottom while trying to cross the water. She said she couldn’t imagine Elijah not wanting to give the gift of life to someone.


Melissa Bornder speaks about her late son Elijah Luczaj during a flag-raising ceremony for National Donate Life Month on April 17 at Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

After realizing her son wouldn’t make it out of the hospital, Bornder said she wanted to plant sunflowers everywhere in his memory. Her husband Bill then turned that into the hashtag #sunflowerseverywhere; Melissa Bornder said it’s since taken on a life of its own. Friends from across the country have sent her photos of the yellow flowers and with that hashtag.

“I truly see sunflowers everywhere,” she said.

Bornder said there’s a great semblance to sunflowers and the impact of organ donation, because sunflowers drop their seeds to sprout into new sunflowers.

“We use those to help people continue on,” Bornder said.

This story has been updated to correct a misspelling of the Carle BroMenn president’s name.


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