Cheerleader became a tissue donor and beacon of hope

Jim Allmon is accustomed to knocking on a family’s door to deliver the news that a loved one has died. He is Sangamon County Coroner based in Springfield, Ill., and a certified medico-legal death investigator. On May 7, 2017, Jim received what appeared to be a routine call from his office reporting a two-car accident with one fatality, and he prepared to go to the site of the crash.

Almost simultaneously, his wife, Courtney, received a call from the Illinois State Police informing her that Madeline “Maddie” Finch, her 16-year-old daughter and Jim’s stepdaughter, died in that accident.

Maddie, a straight-A student and cheerleader at New Berlin High School in New Berlin, Ill., enjoyed being outdoors, was a Cubs fan and adored dogs. She talked about becoming a nurse, but her family often wondered if she’d become a veterinarian.

The morning after her junior prom, Maddie was driving to her father’s home when she fell asleep at the wheel. Her car crossed the median and collided with a semitrailer truck. She died instantly. The state police investigation and the coroner’s autopsy report concluded that Maddie was not texting or under the influence of any narcotics or alcohol. She was driving while tired.

“She never felt the impact at all; she never saw it coming,” Jim said. “She was asleep. She never even applied the brake.”

Through his professional experience working with Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network, Jim knew that Maddie might be able to help others as an organ, tissue and eye donor.

“I dialed Gift of Hope’s number to which I’ve reported so many other deaths. Then I approached my wife to have what I thought was going to be the hardest conversation we’d ever had. I told her, ‘I think we can help. I don’t know if this is going to make it better, but there is still time to donate. You know there’s a long list of people who can benefit from this decision.’ Courtney didn’t bat an eye. She said yes almost immediately.”

The day before Maddie’s fatal accident, Jim stood in front of the New Berlin High School student body during a prom night crash reenactment and talked to them about driving responsibly, as he had done many times. At that time, driving while tired wasn’t part of the cautionary message, but it has become an important topic whenever Jim presents to students and parents since Maddie’s death.

“The irony behind Maddie dying the next day after attending her prom — well, I have a better chance of winning the lottery than of having something like that happening, but it happened.”

Maddie became a tissue donor, offering 152 bone and tendon grafts to patients in need. Her gifts have helped people in California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Singapore, South Korea, and Jordan. In addition, one pulmonary valve was gifted in Pennsylvania.

Maddies RainbowDuring Maddie’s funeral service, a storm came through New Berlin bringing darkness, pouring rain, hail and violent winds. There were reports of a tornado touching down near Berlin Christian Church, where her services were held. Just as the service neared its end and Maddie’s favorite song began to play, the storm cleared and a double rainbow appeared over the church.

“We all stood as a family and walked over to the windows,” Jim said. “And after that threatening darkness, it was so bright. I’ve literally been right where families who decide to donate have been. I can tell you [donation is] a beacon, the one light during the darkest time and an opportunity to help other people who are waiting for organs and tissues and to offer them some hope.”

Jim and his family continue to celebrate her life and honor the gifts she gave to others in need. Maddie’s death and her tissue donation have given him a new perspective on the important role his office plays in donation and the grief of families he serves. In her honor, they established the Maddie Finch Memorial Scholarship Fund to support the educational goals of senior-year cheerleaders at New Berlin High School.

Register your decision today to become an organ, eye and tissue donor, and share your decision to donate life with your family and friends.