Jacob “Jake” Ash loved doing acts of kindness quietly for friends and family. He’d show up unexpectedly to delight his mom or dad. He lived life as an outdoor adventurer, professional blackjack dealer, Army veteran and someone devoted to family, friends and his beloved dog, Axle.
Ash died at age 31 in Spokane after choking on a piece of hard candy on Sept. 29. Today, his relatives aren’t surprised that he’d marked organ donor on forms, an act that has changed the lives of at least six people – separately receiving his liver and tissue, kidneys, corneas and heart.
“He loved surprising people,” said his friend Nolan Stamm. He was Ash’s Spokane roommate and co-worker at the Black Pearl Poker Room & Casino. “He was just renting a room and didn’t have to do anything, but he’d reorganize the kitchen so it worked better for us.
“Or he’d get the yard work done before I got home. That was just Jake. The trait I remember and I think about the most is how thoughtful and caring he was and how much he cared about his friends and family.”
Now, his kindness and heart have tethered unexpected friendships. Another man, also known for his generosity, has reached out along with his wife to Ash’s loved ones. He is Duane Richards, 55, of Oregon, the recipient of Ash’s heart after undergoing a transplant at Oregon Health & Science University on Oct. 4.
A third party handles communication between families of organ donors and recipients to allow anonymity. Often, it’s just thank-you letters without names. But Ash’s mom and dad soon confirmed being comfortable with direct contact.
Since January, Richards and Ash’s many friends and family members have exchanged emails, texts, social media posts and phone calls. Then, more recently, some of them have hugged.
The couple traveled to Spokane from June 26-27, as did family members from southern Idaho, to be at the home Ash shared with Stamm. There, Ash’s mother, his sister, Stamm and others met Richards and his wife for the first time.
And they listened to the heartbeat, as Richards held a stethoscope to his chest. Richards’ cardiac issues began about 2012. Later, tests found he had genetic markers making him prone to cardiac arrhythmia and that a transplant was the only option.
On Sunday of that weekend – for Ash’s 32nd birthday – the couple also joined family members and more friends at Silver Mountain Resort, where Ash went snowboarding, for a celebration of life and to spread his ashes.
Ash’s mom, Danielle Hillman, lives near Boise and said inviting the couple to the Spokane visit came naturally. The similarities between the two are remarkable. Richards is a fan of hiking, snowboarding and waterfalls, just like Ash.
“It’s so interesting how alike they are,” Hillman said. “The No. 1 description for both of them was kind. They live in the Columbia Gorge, which Jake would have loved because it’s so beautiful, and there are so many places to hike.”
There’s also the similarity of unexpected giving. On Mother’s Day last year, her daughter Shelby Aguirre told her she had a gift from Ash in the car, so Hillman followed her outside. Ash jumped out from near the car to surprise her after he’d secretly traveled to Idaho from Spokane. Their reunion was caught on video.
Richards and his wife collaborated with Aguirre to put Ash’s voice saying “happy Mother’s Day” from that encounter on a recording placed into a teddy bear – heard with a squeeze – and followed by the sound of Richards’ echocardiogram heartbeat. The bear was shipped to family, who gave it to Hillman as a surprise this Mother’s Day when she traveled to see her mom in Arizona.
In April, the couple sent another teddy bear to the family of Ash’s dad, David Ash, using a recording from when his son posed as a pizza delivery guy at the door to surprise his father for his 50th birthday in 2018. That moment with laughter is captured in the bear, along with the heartbeat.
David Ash received his bear as he was first visiting a cemetery family plot in Arizona where his mother had commissioned a stone bench for Jake. The bench includes a photo of his son on the Oregon Coast with Axle.
Although Ash’s dad wasn’t able to get to Spokane to meet Duane Richards, they’ve stayed in touch. “I send lots of text messages, and they send me text messages,” said David Ash, who lives in Mountain Home, Idaho. “They sent me one on Jake’s birthday and one on Father’s Day. When I got the heartbeat in the bear, I sent them lots of text messages about how awesome it was.”
Duane and Michelle Richards said they think of Jake Ash often and at each milestone. Having to take multiple medications, including anti-rejection drugs, Duane Richards is regaining his strength after lengthy hospital stays and having his sternum cut open for the transplant.
But he’s recovered enough to go on short hikes and to travel to Spokane when the invitation came. “They’ve made us feel like part of the family, and we feel the same; there is definitely a connection,” Richards said. The couple enjoyed a barbecue at Stamm’s house with family that Saturday evening.
“Everybody was kind of watching Axle to see if he had any kind of reaction,” Hillman said. “We were in the backyard barbecuing, and when Duane and Michelle were leaving, they walked out the back gate, and Axle followed them. He just stood at the gate for a long time and watched them leave. We were kind of thinking, can Axle sense this?”
The couple rode the gondola to Silver Mountain, where 25 to 30 people along with Axle gathered for the next-day celebration. “Even the first thing on that Saturday, it wasn’t uncomfortable,” Richards said. “Part of it is the way they’ve chosen to handle this. If we remind them of grief, of tragedy, it would maybe feel uncomfortable, but they actually feel joy or such that some of Jake is continuing. His gift is helping as many people as it can touch.”
Michelle Richards said they never lose sight of the significance. “We’re very aware that their family’s tragedy was our blessing that we got this heart,” she said. “We try to let them know how grateful we are for Jake.”
Jake Ash grew up in Mountain Home where his dad was stationed with the Air Force. The younger Ash entered the Army, stationed in Tacoma. After the military, he moved to Yakima, then Spokane about three years ago. He hiked often with friends and even solo with Axle, a pitbull, now cared for by Stamm. David Ash said his son’s friends in Spokane have talked “over and over about how he was so nice to everybody.”
When his aunt sent him $100 as COVID-19 closures peaked, Jake Ash sent her a thank-you note and shared that he’d used half to buy a $50 Safeway gift card for a friend struggling to afford necessities.
On that September day, Stamm came home from the gym to find his friend unresponsive, and Ash’s family drove into the night to MultiCare Deaconess Hospital. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, two family members at a time were allowed in while wearing masks to be by Ash’s bedside.
After four days, they got the news of no brain activity. On Oct. 4, a video was taken of the “honor walk” as Deaconess staff silently lined hallways in tribute to Ash – draped in an American flag for his military service – being taken to an operating room for the removal of organs.
At first, hearing of his son being a donor was a shock, said David Ash. But everyone soon realized that was just like Jake. “Even when he’s not here, he’s doing something nice for people,” he said.
His family decided that day to ask friends and relatives to think of him and do acts of kindness or have adventures, then post on social media with the hashtag “#JustForJake,” now at more than 1,000 posts.
Duane’s daughter just announced her engagement, so Richards will be able to walk her down the aisle. Another father sees that, along with other wide-ranging impacts his son continues to make.
“His organ donation gave someone eyesight, or the heart for Duane, which affects not only him and his wife but his kids, and then, if they have grandkids, because now they’ve got him for a lot longer,” David Ash said. “It’s a ripple effect of how many people are affected by one act of kindness or one giving of an organ.
“When you think about it, it’s overwhelming how much it affects other lives. That kind of brings us comfort because they will always know who he is because of what he did for them.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.