|By Emily Foxhall, Daily Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif.|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
"Connor would not like what we're doing," she remarked, but his foot did not twitch.
Doctors had declared
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
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.
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.
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
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
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'
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
Connor inspired many others to pick up the instrument there and helped them to learn how to play, the Ranch's pastor,
Connor enrolled in
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
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
At midnight, the rest of his family, who live near
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,
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
"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
"I could see it in his eyes that he had strength,"
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,
"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.
Five-year-old Ashnika, their third sibling, adopted from
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,
Hours later, around
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