Gift of heart gives man his wedding day

WAILUA — Don E. Thornton, a Tucson, Ariz. Realtor who visited Kaua’i this

week, will remember Feb. 3, 1998 and Aug. 18, 2000 the rest of his life.

On Feb. 3, 1998, Thornton, 65, who had a failing heart, received a heart

transplant that gave him a second chance at life.

The heart came from an

organ donor—a fellow Tucson man—who had died following a collision with

another skier in a snowboarding accident in northern Arizona Feb. 1.


past Saturday, Thornton married his fiancee — Cheryl Yehling, 52, also of

Tucson — on Kaua’i, selecting the island for the special occasion because “it

is the prettiest place in the world.”

The 4 p.m. wedding involved the

reenactment of the wedding ceremony of Elvis Presley in the movie “Blue

Hawaii,” at the old Coco Palms Hotel in Wailua.

The movie helped put

Hawaii on the map as a burgeoning visitor destination in the early 1960s.

To Hawaiian music, the couple, expected to be decked in leis, stood in an

outrigger boat as Hawaiian warriors paddled down a lagoon at the hotel.


wedding ceremony was arranged after Thornton contacted Ernie Menehune, a

Polynesian entertainer who lives in Tucson and is the brother of longtime

Hawaiian entertainer Larry Rivera of Kaua’i.

“We were going to get

married on Kaua’i, anyway, and when we found out Larry did weddings, we called

him up,” said Thornton, who has visited Kaua’i for 30 years. Attending the

wedding were 11 family members and friends of Thornton from


Thornton said he and his wife would not be able to celebrate the

happy occasion if it had not been for the sacrifice of the heart donor,

20-year-old Gabriel Moura.

Before his operation, Thornton led a full life

and dated Yehling, an educator. Their first date was on Valentine’s Day 14

years ago.

Thornton led an active lifestyle — dancing, basketball and

golf. In 1992, his health began to fail, and he was diagnosed with

cardiomyopathy, a disease which affects the ability of the heart to pump


Through treatment, his health rebounded – until 1997, when his

health declined again, Thornton said.

A heart transplant was recommended,

but there were no donor hearts immediately available. Thornton waited, although

he knew his heart was failing.

Thornton’s chance for life came on Feb. 1,

1998, on the slopes of the Sunset Ski Resort in the White Mountains of

northern Arizona.

Moura and his friends snowboarded on the slopes. At about

2 p.m., as his friends were about to call it a day, Moura wanted to make one

last run.

He went down a slope with a friend. In the distance, a block of

trees obscured his view of a ski trail that joined the one Moura


Another skier was on the alternate trail, but neither the skier

nor Moura saw one another until they crashed into each other at full


The impact lifted Moura five feet in the air, landing on the back of

his head on rock-hard ice. The other skier was not seriously


Efforts by paramedics and doctors at the scene and later by

doctors at a medical center in Tucson were unsuccessful.

In the meantime,

the young man’s father, Aecio Moura, was trying to return to Arizona from

Hawai’i, where he worked on a technical project.

When the father reached

Arizona, he found his son breathing with the help of machines.

The family

prayed for a miracle as doctors completed final tests on Moura for brain

activity. There was none.

With Moura brain-dead, the family decided on

whether to donate his body parts. Moura had been a blood donor since he was 18

and had expressed a wish to donate his organs in the event of his


Meanwhile, by Feb. 2 , Thornton, who had been at the hospital for a

month, was near death. He had lost 20 pounds and he didn’t want to sleep for

fear he might not wake up.

Thornton’s life was spared when Moura’s heart

was put in his body by a surgical team led by Dr. Jack Copeland, a leading

cardiothorasic transplant specialist, Thornton said.

“I have to thank God

for this and his ability to help the surgeons do what they have done, because

it is a miracle,” Thornton said.

Moura’s other organs also have helped

prolong the lives of others. A 33-year-old husband and father received his

liver. A kidney went to a 41-year-old woman and the other liver went to a

54-year-old man. Moura’s eyes went to two adults who are visually impaired.

Also, between 35 to 50 people received tissue from Moura’s body, according to

the Moura family.

Following Thornton’s surgery, the Moura family and

Thornton sought each other out, even though the hospital discouraged

interaction between them, Thornton said. He and the Moura family discoverd

they lived within a two miles from each other.

The Mouras, who came from

Brazil, told Thornton that Gabe Moura was a popular and studious sophomore at

Pima Community College, and that he excelled in soccer.

Thornton and

Moura’s family have become the best of friends, getting together for outings

and parties.

Thornton doesn’t want to dwell on it, but he said he will be

forever grateful to the Moura family and that the young man’s spirit would be

with him on his wedding day.

“Their decision to let Gabe be my donor is the

reason I am alive today,” he said.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached

at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and


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