Arnold AFB employee shares son’s story of organ donation for National Donate Life Month

  • Published
  • By Kali Bradford
  • AEDC Public Affairs

April is National Donate Life Month.

During this month, recognition, awareness and celebration are given to shine a light on organ donation and transplantation.

According to, a single donor can save as many as eight lives and enhance more than 75 more with their gifts of life. Currently, there are more than 100,000 people across the nation who are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant.

Marcheta Darnell, Arnold Engineering Development Complex Services Acquisition Program Manager, and her husband, David, have witnessed firsthand the impact of donating life. On Jan. 22, 2024, her only son, Sam, passed from injuries sustained in a single vehicle accident. Marcheta and her family went through the process of donating Sam’s organs.

Through the experience of donation, she has found a way to cope with her loss by sharing her son’s story along with encouraging others to choose to donate life.

After graduating in 2023 from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Sam was ready to make his long-held childhood dreams a reality.

“He majored in business management. We had that in common,” Marcheta said. “I went to UTC and majored in business, so it really made me proud that he followed in his mom’s footsteps.”

From the time he was a toddler, Sam loved trains, especially “Thomas the Train” and the “Polar Express” movie. Throughout his life, Marcheta’s family went on several train rides which encouraged Sam’s passion.

“His ultimate goal was to work for the Chicago Transit Authority,” Marcheta said. “He explored the cities that had a rail system and decided on Chicago because it has a more reasonable cost of living than Washington, D.C., or New York. He then made a few trips to Chicago and researched all the underground tunnels and space available to expand the current service area to cover more residents. He really had a passion about it.”

On Jan. 18, Marcheta would get the call that no parent is ever prepared for. Sam had been involved in a single car accident and had been rushed to Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga.

“Through the heroic efforts of the EMTs who worked the accident and rushed him to the hospital, Sam was given the best chance possible,” Marcheta explained. “The trauma team was able to stabilize him, but within 12 hours of us seeing him, his condition began to deteriorate, and we understood that his injuries were not survivable. We then began to talk to the doctors about organ donation.”

Marcheta added that during this process they learned Sam had signed up to be an organ donor earlier that month.

“I didn’t know it,” she said. “He had just moved into an apartment and was ready for a bright future in Chattanooga. He had changed his address on his driver’s license on Jan. 3 and had signed up to be an organ and tissue donor. We had not talked about that, but it really gave me peace of mind knowing that he made that choice himself. The mission then for us became doing whatever it took to be able to honor his decision and give his gifts.”

Marcheta stated both the staff at Erlanger and Tennessee Donor Services worked diligently to make sure every detail was taken care of, and she and her family were given the best of care while Sam was there.

“They were incredible,” she said. “They never pushed us on anything. When they went over the gifts that could be donated, they watched our faces and if they sensed any hesitation, they would move on to the next thing. They offered the opportunity multiple times for us to change our minds.”

“Each person who came in to work with Sam wanted to know something about him. It provided us an opportunity to tell our favorite things about Sam, and it comforted us that they truly cared,” Marcheta shared. “As a part of the donation process, we were asked to write a paragraph about who Sam was which was read to the medical team before his recovery surgery. All of the recipients of his gifts also received the paragraph so that they would know something about their donor hero.”

Sam gifts included his heart, liver and both kidneys, with each organ going to a different individual.

“It’s a great comfort to know that he was able to do something that incredible,” Marcheta said. “At 22 years old, he thought that far ahead that if something happened to him, he wanted other people to benefit. That was him, though. He loved and cared deeply.

“While it was devastating for us, we couldn’t help but think of the families who were receiving that call of hope, that today was their day and how significant that was to be a part of.”

Marcheta’s sister, Laurie Winton, is also an AEDC employee, serving as the Test Operations and Sustainment Functional Manager. Sam’s “favorite aunt,” Laurie said she is so proud of her nephew and thankful for the team of individuals who aided in the donation process.

“I was his cool aunt who lived in the ‘big city’ of Nashville, and he took every chance he could to visit me whether for a few hours or several days,” Laurie explained. “He grew up into a deeply caring, others-focused young man who loved with his whole heart. I could tell you a million stories of our time together but suffice it to say that I loved him like my own son that I never got to have. All the credit for that happening goes to Marcheta and David who let me.

“I know that choosing to donate one’s organs or tissue when our time here is over is one of the most selfless things a person can do and that will provide hope for other people to have a chance at a more normal life with their own families and friends. It’s a gift unlike any other in this world, and I couldn’t be more proud of our Sam for choosing to be a donor hero.”

Both Marcheta and Laurie are moving forward keeping Sam’s memory alive by sharing his story.

“I would love to have the opportunity to speak or highlight what Tennessee Donor Services does,” Marcheta said. “We didn’t have a clue how donation worked. They were such kind and compassionate people and have continued to support and encourage us. I am working with my local theater to play “The Polar Express” at Christmastime in Sam’s memory to promote Tennessee Donor Services. It’s a difficult mission, but God thinks I can do this.”

In recognition of National Donate Life Month, Arnold Air Force Base will host Tennessee Donor Services and the American Red Cross from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., April 25, in rooms 123 and 125 on the first floor of the A&E Building. 

Tennessee Donor Services will be on hand to discuss with personnel how you can donate life through organ, eye and tissue donation. The American Red Cross will be on hand for those who would like to donate blood.