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
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
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
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.
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.
Moura’s family have become the best of friends, getting together for outings
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 email@example.com