Veronica Eckhardt bent over the hospital bed, sponging paint onto the sole of her son’s left foot.
“Connor would not like what we’re doing,” she remarked, but his foot did not twitch.
Doctors had declared Connor Eckhardt brain-dead the day before, at age 19. Machines breathed for him in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit at Hoag Hospital.
Veronica’s husband, Devin, held his son’s leg steady as she continued to apply a mixture of brown and blue, Connor’s favorite colors.
Their son’s decision to donate his organs had allowed the couple extra time at his bedside. Tests needed to be run. Appropriate organ recipients had to be identified.
On the day of his surgery, Veronica had been thinking of footprints they made when Connor was little. She wanted to make another set, so her mother and father-in-law went to buy supplies at Michaels. These painted prints would commemorate his end.
“Although his footprints will no longer be walking on the earth, his imprints will still be there in so many peoples’ lives,” she said.
The clock ticked past 2 p.m. Connor’s organs were scheduled to be removed in two hours.
Synthetic drug is hard to trace
The previous Saturday, an otherwise healthy Connor had smoked “spice” — a substance made from plants treated with chemicals that bind to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors.
The synthetic pot is thought of as a legal, untraceable way to get high, but the effect can be orders of magnitude more powerful than marijuana, said Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, executive medical director of Hoag’s neurosciences institute.
Also called “K2,” spice can overwhelm brain circuitry, possibly leading to psychosis, kidney injury, high body temperature, heart attack or, as in Connor’s case, death.
Concentrations of chemicals in spice vary, as do the chemicals themselves, making it difficult for users to know what they are smoking and how it might alter their brains.
“There’s no way to tell when you cross the line from the expected effects to the lethal effects,” Brant-Zawadzki said.
Whether because he stopped breathing or his heart stopped pumping blood, or both, Connor’s brain was deprived of oxygen and began to swell.
Tests run at the hospital would not detect spice. The ever-changing components make it difficult for scientists to develop a standard way to trace it. But the hospital found no sign of other drugs. And he had the small, square packet of spice still in his pocket.
Legislators and law enforcement have trouble keeping up with spice too, since manufacturers simply change one part of the banned components to make it legal again.
In California, there is no punishment for possessing spice, Newport Beach Police Officer Bill Hume said.
The drug is often labeled “not for human consumption,” and marketed as potpourri or incense. But many believe it is safe to smoke since it was once easily found at gas stations and head shops.
“People see it as something you can buy over the counter,” said Hume, a drug recognition expert for the department. “They have the false pretense that this is something that is safe.”
In reality “any synthetic cannabinoid compound, or any synthetic cannabinoid derivative” is now illegal to sell in California — a misdemeanor punishable under the state’s health and safety code by up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine — but shops still offer it under code names, Hume said, and its reputation as “legal” persists.
Connor had used other substances commonly believed to be much more dangerous, and his parents are certain he did not know spice would kill him. Instead, they think he succumbed to peer pressure and unknowingly made a fatal choice.
“Connor did not want to die,” his mother says. “Connor very much wanted to live. He had everything to live for.”
Veronica painted the bottom of his opposite foot. Both extremities were pressed against white paper. The nurse held up the result.
“Oh, that’s perfect,” Veronica said, rushing to take hold of the print.
His golden skin radiated
Family and friends had gathered in the gray, window-lit room for the last hours before surgery would begin. They filled the small space and spoke in low voices above the humming medical machinery.
The comatose body before them hardly resembled the charismatic teen he had been.
Usually, Connor animated a room. Quick to get to know strangers, he was the type who many considered their best friend. He was passionate, tender-hearted and loved deeply, his father would recall during a memorial service that weekend.
He was athletic. His golden skin, which radiated in contrast with the mint green hospital gown he wore, and the calluses on his feet hinted at a teen who loved surfing, snowboarding, wake boarding and skateboarding.
Failure had never given Connor pause. He lived life “all-in,” according to his dad. He tried new sports until he mastered them, placing in a surf contest in Hawaii just days after he learned to stand on a board.
Now he rested on a bed angled slightly upward, with his arms and legs propped on pillows. His head leaned toward a teddy bear nestled above his right shoulder, which his youngest sister now sleeps with every night.
‘Nothing but the blood of Jesus’
At nearly 2:20 p.m., Veronica and Devin embraced at their son’s side, exhausted and overcome with emotion.
Music streamed from an iPhone.
What can wash away our sin? What can make us whole again?
Raised by a family strong in its Christian faith, Connor once knew such lyrics by heart. His father, president of an insurance management services group, also had a background in vocational ministry.
In middle school, Connor taught himself to play the guitar. He later helped with worship services at Master’s Ranch, a Christian boarding school in Missouri for troubled boys, which Connor attended at age 15 to help him work through emotions stemming from the knowledge that he was adopted.
Connor inspired many others to pick up the instrument there and helped them to learn how to play, the Ranch’s pastor, David Bosley, said.
Connor enrolled in Liberty University in Virginia to become worship leader after high school, but hadn’t yet completed the program.
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Veronica sat in a chair next to her son, leaning her forehead on the bed.
“What time is it?” she asked, looking up to find the answer. “So we only have an hour and 40 minutes with him?”
Her lower lip curled down. Her right hand rested on Connor’s left.
The minutes ticked on.
“I just keep thinking he’s going to open his eyes and go, ‘What’s up guys?’” she said aloud.
Folding over the bedside, she buried her head in his chest and cried.
A few hours spent in Puerto Rico
When Connor decided to become an organ donor, his parents never imagined it would allow them four extra days with their son.
Connor took a hit of spice with a friend on a Saturday night in Orange County. He later fell asleep.
At midnight, the rest of his family, who live near Sacramento, landed in Puerto Rico for what they thought would be a two-week vacation. But they learned several hours later that Connor was in a Santa Ana hospital and were back at the airport soon after.
Connor was transferred to Hoag overnight. When the Eckhardts arrived at his bedside midday Monday, his brain was swollen, and he was already in a coma.
But they could take pictures. They could try to internalize his smell, which photos could never capture.
They could talk to him, trace the muscles in his arms, run their fingers through his hair.
And they could pray over him, laying hands on him, trying to let him go.
“Father, we are so privileged to know and love and laugh with Connor,” began a family friend, Chris Walsh, as the afternoon pushed on Thursday, July 17, before doctors would wheel Connor’s body away.
He continued, “I pray now for those who are in the same mess he was in just a year ago … I love this boy.”
Getting clean in the desert
Eight months earlier, a rehabilitation program in Palm Springs had helped Connor to get clean from drugs like heroin. He had stayed sober ever since.
Mindy Hunt, 24, who met Connor in the program, recalled long hours they had spent discussing the struggle of abstaining.
“No matter what was going on, what happened, he could get something good out of it,” Hunt said during a time of open sharing at his memorial. “He could get something good out of any situation.”
Hunt had smoked spice once; it made her heart beat so fast that she couldn’t stand up.
Most recently, Connor had been living at a sober home in San Clemente. He excelled in his work at a Valvoline oil change service center, was committed to sobriety and had begun planning for his future.
“I could see it in his eyes that he had strength,” Emily Quezada, 26, who met him through the recovery program there, offered during the service.
Quezada had never heard of spice, but begged, “We can’t let CJ’s death repeat itself. We can’t let CJ die in vain...”
Biological mother suffered from addiction
As the family’s bedside prayer continued Thursday, the nurse entered to drape a blanket on Connor, then retreated.
Veronica now began to speak: “Connor, I’m your mama, will always be your mama, and there is nothing that can take that away.”
Connor, or “CJ,” as he was nicknamed, was adopted by the Eckhardts the day he was born, Oct. 19, 1994.
“I knew I would do anything for him,” Devin shared at the memorial, before draping a lei on the casket, a sign of respect in accordance with Hawaiian tradition. “It was an amazing experience. At that moment, I fully and completely loved him.”
Connor’s two siblings were also adopted.
Still, he wrestled with rejection, fear and abandonment, suffering from a “hole in his heart,” as his mother described it.
A propensity toward addiction also emerged in their son, whose biological mother apparently had not remained sober during pregnancy.
Veronica and Devin tried to be open with him, but when he embarked at age 18 on locating his birth parents, the process threw him head-first into drugs that seemed more likely to kill him than what ultimately did.
“Dad and I are going to fight what took life away too young,” his mother vowed in the hospital room at Hoag.
At 3 p.m. his sister Sabrina, just one year younger than Connor, sat in chair close to her brother.
Five-year-old Ashnika, their third sibling, adopted from Ethiopia, had discovered the Purell dispenser. Her white sandals squeaked on the linoleum floor as she moved from person to person, smothering the sanitizer on their hands.
At 3:15 p.m., Devin scooped up the energetic child in her bright green dress, telling her, “I need a hug from you.”
Soon, she would be giving Connor a kiss goodbye.
The other relatives began to gather their belongings. His maternal grandparents bid farewell, stroking his head, then his aunt and uncle, who took Ashnika from the room, spent one last moment with their nephew.
A nurse announced the helicopters that would take away Connor’s organs would be landing in 15 minutes.
The room cleared out, but Ashnika and her aunt returned. The 5-year-old had forgotten to tell her big brother something. Her aunt held her close to his head.
“I love you Connor,” she said.
Cautionary tale placed on video
In their last minutes with their son, Connor’s mom, dad, sister and close friend filmed a video about the danger of spice.
“This is our son, Connor Reid Echhardt,” Veronica began, speaking in a strained voice.
She continued, “He made the deadly choice to use a product called K2, or spice, and Connor is completely brain dead. [...] This is not a game, it is totally real, please help us fight his fight.”
After the family took a moment for a private goodbye, a “transport team” moved Connor from the ICU, through the hospital’s hallways operating room. His family followed in close procession, right up to the operating room doors. That was as far as they were allowed to go, telling him one last time that they loved him, before his heart, liver, kidneys, and pancreas would be removed.
Then it would be up to the surgical teams, which usually arrive separately by helicopter for each organ donated. That way, a donor’s gifts can be rushed away as soon as possible, often packed in a cooler with a cold, saline slush.
As the first group prepared for their work, a prayer from the family would be read. It began: “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for giving us Connor for 19 years. He is the most amazing person. He has left his imprint on the lives of so many people. He loved you with all his heart.”
Hours later, around 8 p.m., a helicopter departed with that very organ.