The ultimate gift, in the wake of a tragedy – Crow River Media

The Falling family Dustin, Morgan and Michelle received a memorial stone from Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato hockey families following the death of Dylan Falling in a late June car crash.

Dustin Falling has taken pride in passing along life lessons to his children. Among the most important was the significance of being an organ donor.

I always said, the Fallings are a donor family, Dustin explained recently during a nearly two-hour conversation that was filled with a mixture of both tears and laughter at a Litchfield restaurant. I asked (my son) Dylan when he was getting his permit if he was going to be a donor, because I feel strongly about it, but I told him its ultimately up to him.

Ill never forget when he filled out the application at the licensing department. They said, Are you going to be a donor? In a loud voice, he said yes, then looked at me and smiled. He was proud of it, and that was really cool.

Little did Falling realize that the importance of organ donation would soon strike his family under the dark cloud of unthinkable tragedy.

Every parents nightmare

The night of Friday, June 5, was nothing out of the ordinary for Dustin and Michelle Falling. Their children, Dylan and Morgan, were out with friends. That led to a quiet dinner on their patio for the couple, who started dating at Litchfield High School before eventually getting married in 1998.

After dinner, Dustin checked the Facebook app on his cellphone, a routine occurrence for the owner of LifeStyle Homes in Litchfield. He saw a post from a friend mentioning a major car crash near Turcks Trees on State Highway 24 that involved a heavy ambulance presence along with a helicopter.

Dustin knew 16-year-old Dylan, was on his way to pick up his best friend, Danny Winky Estrada, who lives in the Forest City area, for a trip to St. Cloud.

Dustin uses a Live 360 app on his phone to track the location of his children, for safety purposes. Dylans location wasnt moving.

I told Michelle, lets not jump to conclusions yet because maybe theyre waiting for the accident to clear, Dustin said.

At 6:17 p.m., Dustin sent a text message to Dylans phone: R U by Turcks Trees? No response. Another text followed: R U by Turcks Trees? Silence. Two more texts with the same message followed, again with no response.

Dustin then called several times with no answer. Meanwhile, Michelle called Winkys mother, Becky. She tried calling her son, who also didnt answer.

Becky said he always answers her calls, so then we started freaking out, Dustin said. We hopped in the truck and hauling (butt) toward to scene.

A few miles from the scene, Dustin received a call from one of Dylans friends. He was crying and said he heard from someone who had driven past the accident that there was a silver Chevy Cruze in the ditch a match for Dylans car.

When we got on site, the helicopter was in the middle of the road and Dylan was already in it, Dustin said. Winky was on a stretcher. I was able to talk to him and made sure he was OK. Dave Lecher, my service guy, was on scene with the Rescue Squad. He said, Im not a doctor, but he looked really good.

He had a little blood from his ear and he was moaning, but he wasnt responsive. On the outside, we didnt see a scratch on him. But, I didnt have a good feeling. Thats the way I am. If he pulled through, I wouldve said I honesty didnt think he wouldve made it. When they go in a helicopter, I just knew it wasnt good.

Anxious days

Dustin and Michelle didnt get to see Dylan until Saturday morning, as he spent most of the night in surgery. Due to COVID-19 regulations, Dustin and Michelle were the only people allowed to see him.

On Sunday, with the help of a compassionate nursing staff, they finagled a way to get Morgan, 14, into the room to see her brother. The family talked to Dylan, held his hand and told stories. He didnt respond, but everyone believes Dylan heard them.

In those couple days, I spent I dont know how many hours Facetiming friends and family to see and talk to him because they couldnt get to see him, Dustin said. So everybody who I could remember reached out to me got to tell stories to him.

The doctor told Dustin and Michelle that it takes 48 to 72 hours to determine the severity of brain damage, but Dustin couldnt get rid of the feeling that his son was likely not going to recover.

Youd get some encouraging words from family members saying theyre young and strong and they can pull through this, but in the back of my mind I just didnt know, Dustin said.

There was a moment of optimism when a nurse administered a test to determine consciousness, and Dylans hand moved slightly and one of his arms twitched.

I had this ounce of hope. I didnt want to think too far ahead and get hopes up, Dustin said. We went to lunch and when we came back they said that wasnt a response to anything and his brain was posturing, which means its basically shutting down and his body was just reacting to that.

We kind of knew at that point. On Sunday, they said they needed to talk to us and told us hes brain dead. Morgan came in and we told her. I asked over and over again if there was any percent chance he could come through, and they said zero. Morgan couldnt accept that. She kept saying, go ask again.

The Falling family daughter Morgan, Michelle and Dustin, and son Dylan posed for a photo last year while on a hike near Bayfield, Wisconsin.

Michelle had recently mentioned how well things were going with the family and that Dylan and Morgan were getting along wonderfully. Dylan would drive her around town and they would hang out in each others rooms.

He had turned a corner from being a kid into a young man who was really good, Dustin said.

When the reality hit that Dylan wasnt coming back, it was Morgan who pulled the family together.

Amazingly enough, Morgan, for a 14-year-old, was amazing, Dustin said. She said we need to do better as a family. She told us we are great parents and they dont give us enough credit. She really spearheaded how we were moving forward. It was truly amazing.

Dylans drive-in visitation on Tuesday, June 16, was attended by hundreds of friends and family at St. Philips Catholic Church in Litchfield. His remains were put to rest a day later after a private funeral that was streamed online for thousands to view.

Organs find a home

Lifesource is a company that specializes in finding recipients for suitable organs. On June 25, the Fallings received a letter from the company stating the following:

Please accept our heartfelt sympathy on the death of your son, Dylan. Our hope is that you can find peace in remembrances of special times together and the warmth of lasting memories. Also, we would like to express our deepest gratitude for your support of Dylans decision to help others through donation. His compassion has given others a second chance on the quality of life.

Dylans legacy lives on in a 68-year-old man, who received his heart in a transplant procedure in Minnesota. A 34-year-old woman received his right kidney in a procedure in Minnesota. A 45-year-old now has Dylans left kidney after a procedure in North Dakota, and a 55-year-old man received his liver in a procedure in California.

In addition, his connective tissue, bone, vessels veins and skin will be donated to dozens of recipients.

The organ harvesting also had a personal touch as Tim Langemo, a longtime family friend and Dustins hockey teammate for Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato, oversaw the procedure. Langemo is a certified registered nurse anesthetist at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Ironically, Dustin knows firsthand the importance of organ donation. He received a kidney from his brother Kyle in a procedure in February 2019. Dustin says he feels better than ever and has resumed a healthy lifestyle that includes frequent post-dinner bike rides past the St. Philips Cemetery to chat with and say goodnight to Dylan.

Foundation in the works

Soon after word spread of the accident, a GoFundMe page In Honor & Memory of Dylan Falling was launched and has since raised more than $20,000. Donations are still being accepted on that site, and plans are in motion to form a foundation to honor Dylans legacy called The1Foundation.

Dustin and Dylan Falling shared a common love for hockey, both playing goalie in the Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato system. In one of Dustin's proudest moments, they celebrated together on the ice when the LDC PeeWee A hockey team qualified for the state tournament, a season in which Dylan started every game in goal.

Dylan, like his father, was a goalie for LDC. His jersey number 1 will be retired by the hockey program until he was set to graduate in 2022.

Dustin coached Dylan throughout the youth ranks. Dylan helped lead LDCs PeeWee team to the state tournament where they lost three one-goal games a rare feat for the program at the youth level.

The foundation will be set up to raise money for several causes not just hockey. Some proceeds will go to help young goalies afford summer camps, something Dustin said Glenn and Ethel Young made possible for him as a kid. Additional proceeds are planned for other youth sports, like buying football cleats for families who cant afford them.

Dustin and Michelle also plan to help food shelves in the Litchfield, Dassel and Cokato communities, along with a scholarship to School of St. Philip, which Dylan attended until moving on to middle school.

In addition, Michelle is helping take the lead on directing funds to help teens who need financial assistance for mental health issues.

Dylan went through some mental health bumps throughout his life and benefitted from working with the local area mental health services from both Woodland Centers and Pathways Therapeutic in Litchfield, and I know there are so many great kids like Dylan who just need someone else to talk to about how to cope and realize challenges are part of the human experience, Michelle said.

There is still a stigma out there related to youth and mental health and maybe we can help more parents who aren't equipped to help their children process what is going on in their minds, she said. We know teens don't always listen to or take their parents advice and need someone outside to talk to and trust. There are so many opportunities we will have to financially support our community. It's exciting to start dreaming and planning how we will be able to give back to the community to help others and live out our sons life legacy.'

Daily life is vastly different at home for the Fallings. The cards and well-wishes have been read, and both Dustin and Michelle occupy their time with work, which Dustin said is a welcome distraction. Theyve also had gatherings with Dylans friends at family property on Lake Stella.

Dustin said he and Michelle dont for a second regret allowing Dylan to go to St. Cloud that night, stressing that would be hypocritical since they used to hound him to stop playing Fortnite in his room and encourage him to go out and drive around with friends.

The coping and grieving process is constant. Dylan wrote a speech about a person he admired for one of his classes at Litchfield High School. The speech was about his father. Michelle asked if Dustin wanted to see the speech on Fathers Day, which was four days after the funeral.

Dustin wasnt ready for that, simply saying this:

Every milestone will be hard. The thing Ill miss more than anything is we were starting to hang out more as father-son, and as a friend and not just a father.

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The ultimate gift, in the wake of a tragedy - Crow River Media

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