July 8, 2019

As a nurse, she supported organ donation. As a mother, Kim Cantu never expected the donor to be her son.

Sky Cantu donated his heart, liver and both kidneys, saving four lives in the process.

Environmental portrait of Kim Cantu, an Emergency Department nurse, somewhere in the ED. This is for a somber article about Kim's son, Sky, who died in an accident and donated his organs.

Kim Cantu. Photo by Susan Urmy

As an emergency department nurse, it is not uncommon for Kim Cantu, RN, TNCC, to care for families through the last moments of the life of a loved one. She recalls an incident two years ago, when a mother asked her about donating her son’s organs. In her dozen years as a nurse, it was the first time she had put a family in contact with Tennessee Donor Services, the agency that handles organ donation.

She had no way of knowing then that she would be in the same situation a year later, this time with her own son.

Sky Cantu, 23, was rushed to a local hospital in December 2017 with a traumatic brain injury following an accident, and his mother faced the same end-of-life decisions as the families she cares for. Kim Cantu is sharing her story in the hope that other families might register as organ donors.

“He could only say three words: ‘what,’ ‘please’ and ‘momma.’ That was all he could say over and over again. The last word he ever said was ‘momma,’” she said.

Her journey toward organ donation began years earlier. “In our family, that was something that was always talked about,” she said. “My mother is a nurse. My sister is a nurse … My father was a critically ill person for most of my life, from the time I was 11 years old on.”

Her father suffered from several chronic illnesses – heart disease, renal tubular acidosis and diabetes among them. Her mother was an outspoken registered organ donor, and Cantu joined her at age 16 when she signed the back of her driver’s license.

Sky Cantu with his son, Nicka’Lye. Photo courtesy Cantu family.

Kim Cantu, who lost her father at age 30, went on to start her own family with her husband Leo. In 2002, she adopted two biological brothers out of foster care, Sky, 7, and Storm, 6. “We were their 14th home in four years and they had been through so much,” she said. “They clung to each other really hard.”

Sky Cantu was Storm’s older brother, his protector and best friend. They liked many of the same things – soccer, football, listening to many genres of music and trying just about any kind of food. The brothers went on to attend East Hickman High School in Hickman County.

Sky Cantu’s teenage years were rough. He manifested signs of mental illness. Around the time of his high school graduation, he left home and had since been in and out of his parents’ lives.

What happened to Sky Cantu late on a Sunday night in November 2017 was unclear, Kim Cantu said.

“He had been in rehab for about three weeks and even though he was really trying hard to treat the drug addiction, he did not want to treat his schizophrenia,” she said. “And so of course he wasn’t working the program well because he was not treating the schizophrenia. And he was asked to leave rehab.”

She received a call during her night shift at Vanderbilt. Her son had been taken to a local hospital. All she knew at first was that he had suffered trauma.

Kim Cantu described the police report: Sky Cantu ran screaming toward a woman driving an SUV saying, “he’s got a gun, he’s going to kill me.” The driver wasn’t about to unlock her door, a decision Kim Cantu understands. The driver was on the phone with 911 and trying to drive Sky Cantu away from the situation. He clung to a door handle and the car’s antenna, until the antenna snapped and his head hit the pavement.

Arriving at the hospital, Kim Cantu found her son sedated and with obvious head trauma. The next morning, he was extubated. “He could only say three words,” she said, “‘what,’ ‘please’ and ‘momma.’ That was all he could say over and over again.”

He began punching and kicking and had to be restrained, then sedated again. “The last word he ever said was ‘momma.’ And that’ll kick you right in the teeth,” she said.

Sky Cantu stayed in the hospital for nearly a week, and his mother was with him most of that time. It appeared her son would need a long regimen of physical rehabilitation. But that Friday, five days after going to the hospital, his brain began swelling uncontrollably. She called family to join him at his bedside. A scan the following morning confirmed her fears – blood had ceased to flow to his brain.

“So I said, ‘OK, we need to talk about organ donation and we need to do it quickly,’” she said.

To begin the process, a pronouncement of death is required, and she asked if she could do it. She did. Kim Cantu discovered that her son had also registered to be an organ donor, as indicated on his driver’s license.

He donated his heart, liver and both kidneys, saving four lives in the process.

“For our family, it was this element of hope that we could pull out of this literally terminal situation,” Kim Cantu said. “There was nothing that we could do for him anymore, but his decision to go ahead and donate, it gave us something to put our energy and our faith and hope behind, and we could make this happen and give somebody else a chance. It kept me going immediately afterwards when I had nothing.”

“I didn’t know how to start that letter. Finally, the opening line was, ‘If you woke up craving hot Cheetos and Mountain Dew, that’s probably a good thing. That was my son’s way of saying hello.’”

Sky Cantu’s friends and family rallied behind his decision with a social media campaign encouraging others to become organ donors. Kim Cantu said about 50 people have registered as a result.

One year after his death, Kim Cantu met the woman who received her son’s heart. She listened to it beat with a stethoscope. The meeting happened as a result of a letter she wrote that was delivered by Tennessee Donor Services. The recipient had the choice of whether to respond.

“I probably started that letter to the recipient seven times, because I didn’t know how to start that letter,” Kim Cantu said. “Finally, the opening line was, ‘If you woke up craving hot Cheetos and Mountain Dew, that’s probably a good thing. That was my son’s way of saying hello.’”

To learn more about becoming an organ and tissue donor, visit donatelifetn.org. Tennessee drivers can also choose to become an organ donor on their driver’s license applications. Donors are encouraged to share their decisions with their families.