Olivia “Livi” Sonetz was a force of nature — energetic, kind, unstoppable, fearless and unforgettable. Tragically, Livi, who was a senior at Normal Community West High School in Normal, Ill., died on March 7 after an automobile accident one day earlier. Despite the magnitude of their loss and sorrow, her parents, Laura and Paul, authorized organ and tissue donation on Livi’s behalf. Through the gift of donation, Livi saved three lives with her organ gifts, and her tissue gifts have already helped to heal many others. The Peoria County Coroner’s office worked with Gift of Hope to obtain a successful donation outcome for Livi and her family. Living kidney donor and Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood and his staff believe in offering families the opportunity to consider organ and tissue donation. “There are a lot of logistics and processes involved in donation, but I put forth the extra effort because it’s so personal to me,” Harwood said. “As a living donor, I saw how donation transformed my friend’s life. As a parent, that loss would be devastating, but I would absolutely follow through with donation. I know there are strong emotions attached to that difficult decision. I have such empathy and admiration for the Sonetz family. I keep them in my thoughts and prayers, and I just can’t imagine what it’s like to go through this, but I am happy that they chose donation.”
An important question in coroner- and medical examiner-related cases is whether they will release the deceased for donation before or after an autopsy. Harwood believes in releasing donation cases before an autopsy is done, especially if doing so will not impede or negatively impact an investigation. In Livi’s case, Harwood did just that to help ensure her family’s wishes to donate were honored.
“I try to release before autopsy on donation cases because there is a risk of falling outside of the necessary time frame to make donation possible if we don’t,” Harwood said. “I want all of our donors to have a chance to save and enhance the lives of as many people as possible.”
Donation offers the precious gift of life to those in need. Because of the generous decision Livi’s family made on her behalf, she will be remembered by all who knew her as much for saving and healing the lives of others through donation as for her appetite for life, compassionate heart, natural sports abilities and infectious smile. These are only a few of Livi’s qualities, which her family, friends and community already miss.
“If I had to describe her, she’s one-of-a kind, and there will never be another one,” said Paul, Livi’s father. “She was fearless and had a heart the size of a pumpkin. She’d strap everybody on her back and carry them.”
Livi was a student-athlete at Normal Community West and was headed to Heartland Community College to play softball with her sister Ellie. But more than a student-athlete, Livi possessed a “supernatural” ability for sports, which made her an anomaly — of the best kind — as far as her family, peers and the many people who saw her play were concerned.
Although Livi chose softball over soccer, her father remembers the first time he saw her on a sports field, in this case a soccer field. “The first game Livi played she was about two to three years younger than the other players,” said Paul. “She stole the ball and went all the way down the field to score a goal. Everybody just looked at me, and I remember one of the other coaches going, ‘Oh my God!’ One of the most memorable things aboutmy kids playing sports was watching my older daughter Ellie and Livi go down the field together against a poordefender and seeing Ellie pass the ball to her younger sister to score.”
Laura, Livi’s mother, was also proud of her daughter’s drive and fearlessness. “She gave it her all every time,” she said. “Her uniform was always dirty before the game even started. She would dive for any ball, and she made some phenomenal plays. She was an outstanding athlete, and it was just an honor to watch her.”
In 2015, during the Illinois High School Association state softball finals, an incident illustrated Livi’s remarkable commitment to delivering high-octane performances on the field. Livi was struck in the mouth by a grounder while playing second base. Four of her front teeth were pushed back at a 45-degree angle. Livi left the game and came back an inning later determined to help her team out. She got a base hit, made a play in the field and stole second base.
Jim Mattson, an NBC25 TV sportscaster who has been on air covering central Illinois sports since 1987, remembers the impact that Livi had on sports and people. “Livi Sonetz stood out on the softball diamond because of her passion and enthusiasm for the sport and her team,” said Mattson. “She played the game with the joy of an 8-year-old, and that joy was so evident to all, from her team, to opponents and even fans. Livi was a winner in the most important game — the game of life.”
AN INDELIBLE MARK
Well-known for her electricity and almost impossible plays on the field, Livi was also known for her compassionate and caring nature. Supporting, motivating and caring for others is something Livi did well — on and off the field.
Livi’s generosity of spirit helped the Sonetz family decide that donation befitted her essence and positive impact on the world.
“Livi would want to continue helping people, so making the decision was a no-brainer,” said Laura. “It was difficult, but knowing that Livi saved other people’s lives — I know that’s what she would want to do. The donation process also gave me more time with her at the hospital. I was able to lie in bed with her and be with her. So did friends and family, and that extra time helped us so much.”
Paul recalls a distinct moment he shared with one of the nurses right before Livi went into the operating room for organ recovery. “They were wheeling Livi in for the donation surgery, and I told the nurse, ‘You tell those surgeons to get ready for some high-octane parts because this is a one-of-a-kind person, and whoever receives these organs better hold on,’” said Paul.
“That same nurse attended Livi’s visitation, and she said to me, ‘I want you to know I walked into the OR, and I said, ‘Livi’s father just wants everyone to understand that you’re handling high-octane parts.’ She said everyone broke into applause and honored Livi.”
Livi saved the lives of a woman in her 60s who received her left kidney and liver, a man in his 60s who received her heart and a man in his 40s who received both of her lungs. Gift of Hope has also learned that orthopedic surgeons for the Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers have transplanted tissue grafts that Livi offered through tissue donation. Successful donation outcomes are not possible without the support of Gift of Hope’s partners.Because of the extra effort put forth by all involved in the shared donation process, Livi was able to leave an indelible mark on the lives of many people — in life and in death.
Livi is survived by her parents Laura and Paul, older sister Ellie and younger brother William.