As a young Fresno husband and father, James McLaughlan always thought of his family’s needs before his own, from giving his shirt to his wife in a rainstorm to racing after work to pick children up from cheerleading practice.
It made sense that McLaughlan, 27, would help others in death.
When McLaughlan died suddenly on Dec. 19 of what doctors suspect was a brain aneurysm – or a type of stroke – his family learned he had checked the organ/tissue donor box on his driver’s license.
Knowing her husband’s wishes made it easier for his wife, Alexi McLaughlan, 29, to give consent for the donation of his corneas, muscles, bone, skin and tissues. His heart and other vital organs were too damaged for donation.
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“If it could help someone else, I was going to do it, but it was on his driver’s license so I knew that was what he wanted,” she says.
It’s likely that James McLaughlan’s selfless act has helped dozens. “A tissue donor can help up to 75 people on average,” says Noel Sanchez, public affairs manager at Donor Network West, an organ procurement and tissue recovery organization.
McLaughlan’s wife says it has given her some peace that others are benefiting from the goodness her husband showered on her and their two children.
If it could help someone else, I was going to do it, but it was on his driver’s license so I knew that was what he wanted.
“If you could write to God for the perfect husband and father, he’s who he would send,” she says.
But when they met online a decade ago, James McLaughlan had to woo her. He was different from any boyfriend she’d had before. He was two years younger – and short. But he quickly had her love, Alexi McLaughlan says. “He was one of the most kind and generous persons I had ever met.”
Her favorite memory is of one of their first dates. She invited him to dinner and didn’t warn him that she was babysitting a 3-year-old niece and 3-month-old nephew. “He immediately played with them and took to those kids like nothing else.”
McLaughlan’s ease with children made him a great father to their children, daughter Bailey, 6, and son Hunter, 3.
“The kids were such Daddy kids,” Alexi McLaughlan says. She would find her husband after work on the floor with Hunter, surrounded by Lego pieces. And he indulged Bailey by playing with Barbies. A tire salesman, he took Barbie’s car into work one day to “soup” it up and make it run faster. The increased speed lasted for 15 minutes until the battery ran down.
McLaughlan often gave the children their baths, and he had tucked them into bed the night he died.
That night, the couple had turned the television off and were getting ready to go to bed when McLaughlan grabbed the wall, said his wife’s name and collapsed.
Alexi McLaughlan did CPR until a policeman and paramedics arrived. She sat on the living room floor with her daughter, praying that her husband would be OK. Bailey told her mother, “I think Daddy is just stuck in a dream.”
The words were comforting.
A tissue donor can help up to 75 people on average.
Noel Sanchez, Donor Network West
Since her husband’s sudden death, Alexi McLaughlan says her children have given her strength – because she has to remain strong for them. But she makes it through each day minute by minute. “I feel like I’m stuck in a dream world – some horrible nightmare – and I can’t wake up.”
James McLaughlan hadn’t been sick, but the evening before he died he had complained of a slight headache when he picked up a niece from competitive cheerleading practice. He had high blood pressure and was pre-diabetic, but had both under control with medication, Alexi McLaughlan says.
A brain aneurysm is more common in people over age 40, but it’s not unheard of in younger people, says Dr. Amir Khan, a Fresno endovascular neurologist. McLaughlan wasn’t his patient, but Khan says “there are just tragic cases like this.”
Mark McLaughlan of San Diego says his son’s death is beyond tragic, but “I know he’s with his grandparents and others. God must have a different plan for him.”
His son made him proud, he says. “He was a great kid and a fabulous dad.”
Alexi McLaughlan’s mother, Dottie Duncan, says her son-in-law “was the easiest person in the world to get along with.” She has a home in southeast Fresno that has separate living quarters for her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. She is retired and the couple paid rent to her and a portion of the utilities. The arrangement allowed her daughter to be a full-time college student and mom, Duncan says.
Alexi McLaughlan says she and James had it worked out: Once she graduated, then he would start college to become a teacher. “He always put me first,” she says. “Even if I tried to put him first, it never worked.”
She has one undergraduate class to complete at the University of Phoenix before beginning a two-year teaching credential program, she says. It’s been difficult to continue with classes, but she knows her husband would want that. And she will need a career now to support herself and her children.
In the meantime, a GoFundMe account has been set up to help her and the children.
Alexi McLaughlan is grateful. “It will help me to take care of my kids without having to rely on my mother until I can work.”