Young athlete’s legacy continues to give life through organ donation

Jermaine is among the Illinois student-athletes that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) and Donate Life Illinois honor along with their families and communities for saying “yes” to organ, tissue and eye donation.  For the sixth year in 2023, we are partnering with IHSA to encourage high school students to become educated about donation and “Say Yes” to joining the Illinois Organ/Tissue Donor Registry upon receiving their driver’s licenses. Register your decision here.

Jermaine Cullum was the high school homecoming prince and an athlete who joined the varsity basketball team as a freshman. Before he stepped into his first class at Christ the King High School, he had a full-ride scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota.

“He had the ball in his hands … almost as if he had the whole world in his hands, and then all too soon – he didn’t,” Jermaine’s mother Tarcia recalls. It was while playing in a basketball tournament that Jermaine collapsed on the court.

A nurse and a doctor watching the game kept Jermaine alive so he could be transported to a hospital. He lived for three more days there, but never regained consciousness. Jermaine’s heart attack was caused by an undetected heart condition.

“When the doctors pronounced my Jermaine brain dead on May 6, the one thing that kept me going was knowing that he wanted to be an organ donor and finding out that he could be,” Tarcia says. She authorized donation on his behalf.

Jermaine’s donation saved three people waiting for life-saving organ transplants: Tariq, Celia and Karen. “I get to talk to the recipients all the time. The conversations help keep me connected to my son,” Tarcia says.

Tariq, a lifetime diabetic, received a kidney and pancreas transplant through Jermaine, giving him more time with his young family. Celia suffered from a rare genetic disease and was saved with Jermaine’s right kidney and liver. Karen, a special education teacher, brought an oxygen tank to work each day until  Jermaine’s lungs treated her pulmonary fibrosis.

Jermaine had wanted to become a teacher and tutored elementary school students in math. He was caring and it was clear that he would have chosen to help others through organ donation, his mom says. They had talked about his choice to sign a donor card, something the 16-year-old didn’t get around to doing before he died so unexpectedly.

A foundation in Jermaine’s name now provides free echocardiogram screenings for kids. Through the costly tests, each year, conditions similar to the one that led to Jermaine’s heart attack are detected in about 30 students.

Tarcia is an advocate for donation, reaching out particularly in African American communities around Chicago. “Unfortunately, there are quite a few myths about organ donation – I tell others about what organ donation really is – and what it really is not.”

“And you know, a lot of my friends have now signed up to become organ donors. That makes me very happy … and I know that it would make Jermaine very happy too.”