A truck hit a horse and teenage rider. Her family now hopes her life saves others
A week ago, Summer Gardner-Vigil climbed atop her horse, Riggs, and told her mom “I love you” before riding off.
The 19-year-old was halfway through her morning route and heading for the dirt path behind her neighbors’ Turlock ranches that would lead back home when a white pickup swerved toward the shoulder of the road, striking her and her horse.
The teen, who graduated high school in May and dreamed of working in a veterinary clinic, was thrown to the pavement. Riggs, a rescue she’d spent much of the year nursing to health, died at the scene.
According to a preliminary report filed by the California Highway Patrol, the horse and rider were traveling along the right edge of Harding Road when they were struck by a 2003 Chevrolet pickup around 9 a.m.
The driver was identified as Isaac Leal, 27, from Delhi, a small community six miles south of Turlock.
Leal told the CHP that as he reached for a water bottle, he “momentarily” took his eyes off the road. When he looked up and saw the horse and rider, he jerked his steering wheel to the left. His truck rotated counterclockwise, striking Riggs and knocking Summer to the ground.
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Summer’s mother, Regina Gardner-Vigil, was driving on the freeway Wednesday morning when she got a call from her daughter’s cellphone. A man she didn’t know who had witnessed the crash said the young woman had been taken by ambulance to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, 20 miles north of where they lived.
Regina sped toward the hospital, crying out for her daughter. She was so upset, she said, that she forgot her youngest son, Isaiah, was strapped behind her in his car seat.
“Momma, are you OK?” the 2-year-old asked as they raced toward Modesto.
Regina slowed the car, refocused her attention on the road and began to pray.
At the hospital, Regina learned her daughter had suffered a traumatic brain injury and needed emergency surgery to reduce the swelling. The young woman’s face was badly bruised, and her right leg was broken.
For the next 72 hours, Summer’s family huddled around her hospital bedside. On Saturday, two doctors delivered the heart-wrenching news: The 19-year-old was brain dead.
Now faced with the unthinkable, her mother knew what needed to happen next.
“I want her heart to be someone else’s joy,” Regina said.
A representative from Donor Network West, an organ procurement and tissue recovery organization, asked Regina and her husband, Brad, whether they had considered donating their daughter’s organs.
Regina remembered how quickly her middle child would spring from her car to help an animal on the side of the road, and how weeks before the crash, she’d begged to adopt a three-legged pig to save it from a kill shelter.
But when she approached her other children — 17-year-old Shaunisty, 23-year-old Adam and 25-year-old Abel — they all said no.
She asked them what their sister, who was scared of needles and hospitals, would do if someone needed a blood donation.
“You’re right, Mom, she would give her blood,” they said.
One by one, Summer’s siblings came around to the idea.
Organ transplants plummeted as the coronavirus spread. Doctors in the U.S. and France cut way back on the procedures to avoid putting living donors at risk.
Nearly 114,000 Americans are currently waiting for an organ transplant, and nearly 22,000 live in California, according to Donate Life California, a nonprofit that manages an organ, eye and tissue donor registry.
One hundred and fifty people are added to the nation’s organ transplant waiting list each day — “one every 10 minutes,” the organization says, and an average of 22 patients die every day while waiting because the organ they needed wasn’t donated in time.
As matches are made for Summer’s heart, lungs, liver and other organs, doctors will fly in from around the country to retrieve them. Once the organs are recovered, she will be unhooked from the machines that are keeping her body alive.
“Our biggest, worst nightmare is going to turn into someone’s blessing, somebody’s miracle,” Regina said, adding that her daughter’s organs could save up to eight lives.
“My daughter would want that,” she said.
In the coming weeks, the CHP will make a recommendation to the Stanislaus County district attorney’s office about whether criminal charges should be filed against Leal.
Regina said she really hasn’t thought much about him. She’s waiting to see what the CHP investigation yields.
Right now, she is focused on spending the last remaining hours with her daughter. When the machines that are hooked up to Summer’s body stop humming, her mother will drive back to her country home, where she’ll be greeted by the teenager’s many animals — her cows and chickens; her cat, Misty, and German shepherd, Molly; as well as a 6-month-old goat named Daisy her daughter was bottle-feeding.
She’ll remember how Summer used to meet her in the driveway when she got home from work, open her car door, grab her purse and walk with her toward the house.
“I’ll tell her how my day was, and we’ll go inside,” she said.
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