Mother turns 6-year-old daughter's death into chance to save other lives

Mother turns 6-year-old daughter's death into chance to save other lives
Emily Branstetter and her three daughters: Madeline, Olivia and Ava (Source: Branstetter family)
Emily Branstetter and her three daughters: Madeline, Olivia and Ava (Source: Branstetter family)

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As a family battles the shock and grief of their little girl's sudden death, they're still reaching out to help others. In some way, Emily Branstetter said it is what is helping her family heal.

"She will be remembered every second of every day," Branstetter said.

Branstetter is a single mother of three beautiful girls, Madeline, Olivia and Ava.

Ava had just recently won a $1,000 fundraiser out of 8,700 children. She said she wanted to buy her mom a new home and car with the money and give each of the children on her school bus $200. When she realized that could not happen, she settled with season passes to Blue Bayou for her and her two sisters.

On Thursday, May 26 around 7:30 p.m., after leaving a cousin's pre-K graduation party, Ava and her sister Olivia decided to ride home with their grandpa, or "Papi" as they call him. Ironically, the accident was right in front of Blue Bayou.

"It just feels like the way things lined up in an odd way it was almost destined to be that way," Branstetter said.

"She was sitting by the car seat and then after I got out of the car and after a car hit the van again and after my grandpa and the fireman, had to carry her into the truck," Olivia said.

Her 6-year-old sister, Ava, did not survive.

"And then after, we went straight to the hospital," Olivia said.

"They told me she had a catastrophic spinal cord injury and that they did not see any brain activity," Branstetter said.

For 12 years, the mother of three has been a registered nurse at one of the ICU's at Our Lady of the Lake watching families make the decision to donate their organs.

"Patients, families would choose to have those organs donated and really that has just stuck with me for the last 12 years that that's something I always want to do if I ever had the chance. Never thought I would be making that decision for my child," Branstetter said.

But the decision to donate Ava's organs has given her strength while she plans her own little girl's funeral.

"That's the only thing that's kept me together this whole time is knowing that other people will get to live on even though she was taken from us," Branstetter said. "Even though we were told she was not alive that day, there were other people across the country getting phone calls that their lives were going to be saved because of her."

Every time a person donates their organs, they can save up to 9 lives. In Ava's case, her heart is too little but the vessels from her heart will beat on in multiple hearts. The Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency, or LOPA, oversees that and in Ava's case, they recorded something for Branstetter to make sure her daughter is always with her.

"[They recorded] her heartbeat for me so her sisters can bring it to Build A Bear and you can put the heartbeats in them and make a bear to keep," Branstetter said.

In the days that followed Ava's death, Emily said everything was a sign from God. Ava's twin sister, Olivia was also in the car but walked away with only bruises. The fact that Olivia and Ava were even twins was something very special, because Branstetter said twins do not run in her family.

"They were completely unexpected and in some ways I feel like God gave me twins as a complete surprise, but he knew that one day he would need one of them back so I feel lucky he gave her to me to love for 6 and a half years," Branstetter said.

Kiran: "Do you know where your sister is?"
Olivia: "Yes"
Kiran: "Where is she?"
Olivia: "In Heaven."

Just two days after Ava's death, Olivia surprised her family with a song. "Ava, you are an angel. Let's go and play together one day. Ava, you are an angel. I love you. I hope you feel better. I'll pray for you. I'll listen to you. I love you. You are an angel," sang Olivia.

The answers from Ava continued. After her death, when her mom asked if she wanted butterflies or balloons released at her funeral, "Literally, five seconds later, a nurse walked in and said here's a prayer blanket and it has balloons and butterflies on it," Branstetter said.

They say faith is what's helping Branstetter and her parents pull through the tragedy.

"I know God's ways are not our ways, but it's such a mystery. He's going to allow other people to live because of Ava," said Ava's grandmother, Anne Gregory.

Branstetter hopes her story will encourage others to be organ donors. Meanwhile, organ donation is the only reason Wendy Lipsey is alive, an organ recipient herself, who is a speaker for LOPA.

"I believe this girl is a hero. By her gift of donation, she will be saving many lives," Lipsey said.

Visitation for Ava is Friday morning at 9:15 at St. John the Evangelist Church in Prairieville followed by the burial at 11 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be made to LOPA.

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