Anthony Fowler, 11, was digging a tunnel with a friend while playing in a dried-up ravine in California when dirt caved in on both of them, leaving Anthony not able to breathe while his friend scrambled out safely and ran for help.
Five years after their son’s death, Anthony’s parents, retired U.S. Marine Master Sergeant Freddie Fowler and his wife, Gretchen Fowler, have moved from Tecumseh, California, back to Parrish and have become active members of the Manatee County community, where they have committed themselves to families who have gone through accidental tragedies like their own.
The family had first retired to Parrish in December, 2009 and stayed with family while their new house was being built. But later left the home vacant and moved to California temporarily when Freddie Fowler made a decision to un-retire and go back to active duty.
On their return to Parrish in August, 2012, the couple created the Anthony Fowler Foundation in Manatee County, which, among other aims, helps stricken families with funeral costs and other matters.
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Anthony attended fourth and fifth grade at Mills Elementary School, where teachers still remember him. Anthony also played baseball at Buffalo Creek Park, which was North River Little League at the time and later became Buffalo Creek Little League.
Even while in California, Gretchen Fowler remained a board member of the Parrish Civic Association, knowing the family would be returning.
The Anthony Fowler Foundation is hosting “Rally at the Railroad,” a free event set for noon to 6 p.m. April 29 at the Florida Railroad Museum, 12210 83rd St. E., Parrish.
But Freddie and Gretchen Fowler are doing something intensely personal for themselves and their son Friday.
The Fowlers will raise a simple green and blue Donate Life Day Flag during Blake Medical Center’s fifth annual National Donate Life Day Flag Raising Ceremony at 10 a.m. Friday, at the hospital’s flag pole.
Blake officials who have attended previous events call it highly emotional.
“There is never a dry eye at the ceremony, including mine,” said Kelly Carlstein, a coordinator in Blake’s marketing department. “It’s a moment for us to come together to celebrate the beautiful act of donation and honor the care team, the families, the recipient and the donor.”
The flag flies for three days and then is presented to the family as a lasting remembrance of their loved one, Carlstein said.
Blake also raises the flag every time a family with a loved one in the hospital makes the decision to donate organs and/or tissue, Carlstein added.
The public is urged to join the Fowlers, hear their story and talk to them about their reasons for making the decision they made on Feb. 14, 2012, two days after their son’s accident left him brain dead, to make him an organ donor, Carlstein said.
An organ recipient will also speak at the flag raising, Carlstein said.
On Feb. 16, 2012, Anthony Fowler saved five lives with his organs.
Anthony saved and changed lives
Six months after Anthony’s organs were donated, his mom, Gretchen, a nurse, found herself becoming a proponent for donation.
“After Anthony was in his accident and when we, as a family, felt there was nothing else that doctors could do for him due to lack of oxygen to his brain, me, my husband and my three older daughters unanimously felt, ‘Why shouldn’t we do something for someone else?’ ” Fowler said. “We felt the best thing we could do is offer Anthony to other people so they could live on. Because of that, Anthony was able to give five people a chance at life. And not just them, but the family of the five and all their friends and anyone they come in contact with in the future. This is all because of what Anthony was able to do.”
Once back in Parrish, Fowler called LifeLink of Florida so many times that finally the organization, which links donors and recipients, agreed to hire her as a family care coordinator.
Her job is to meet with families in their darkest hours, to see if they want to make their loved one an organ donor.
LifeLink of Florida represents 15 counties on the west coast, including Manatee and Sarasota. It works with Florida tax collectors to encourage people to authorize organ donation on their driver’s licenses and has affiliations with hospitals that are required to notify them when there is a grave accident that could result in an organ donor.
“LifeLink gets a phone call from the hospitals and LifeLink dispatches me to the hospital,” Fowler said. “I evaluate the donor to see if they are medically eligible to be a donor.”
But her true role is to speak to the family at the bedside and talk to them about their loved one being a potential donor.
“I think I work best with the parents because I can relate to them on the level they are on,” Fowler said. “I just let them lead me. Many times they tell me, ‘You know what? I’m glad I did this. I’m glad I made that decision because now we are able to help someone else.’ ”
Although the Fowlers are big supporters of organ and tissue donation, the couple confront others with a different opinion.
One of the things the Fowlers hear is that people fear if they have designated themselves as organ donors doctors won’t work as hard to save their lives in an accident.
“We hear that a lot,” Gretchen Fowler said. “That is one of the biggest fallacies. The reason that is not true is because if they don’t try to save that person then those organs are not usable anymore. If anything, they work extra hard to make sure the organs will be OK in case the person turns out to be a donor.”
There is no age limit to donation, said Ashley Moore of the LifeLink Foundation.
“There are myths out there that we are trying to cancel with education,” Moore said. “A person with hepatitis can donate. We can recover HIV organs for patients with HIV.”
Organ donation has increased 21 percent
Organ donation, which can include a heart, liver, two kidneys, two lungs, small intestine and pancreas, has increased by 21 percent over the past five years within Florida’s 15 coastal counties, Moore said.
One person can potentially save eight lives, Moore added.
People can also donate skin, bone, tendons, ligaments, heart valves and corneas.
In 2016, LifeLink had 230 organ donors and 655 organs were transplanted, Moore said.
Of the 655 organs that were transplanted last year, 330 were kidneys, the organ in highest demand, Moore added.
“People can be maintained on dialysis while waiting for a transplant,” Moore said.
If you go:
- What: National Donate Life Day Flag Raising Ceremony
- Purpose: To honor those who have donated organs and tissue to others
- When: 10 a.m. Friday, April 21
- Where: Blake Medical Center, 2020 59th St. W., Bradenton
- Admission: Free
- Information: Kelly Carlstein, 941-798-6540
If you go:
- What: Anthony Fowler Foundation, Inc.’s “Rally at the Railroad”
- Purpose: to raise money for families that have been stricken with accidental tragedies
- When: Noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 29
- Where: Florida Railroad Museum, 12210 83rd St. E., Parrish
- Admission: Free; includes a 50/50 raffle, rock wall climbing, bungee, dunk tank, corn hole and more
- Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or Gretchen Fowler at 941-704-8883