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West Point cadet Peter Zhu's parents lose son, but win promise of future grandson

A second-day approach to the case of the West Point cadet whose genetic material became the focus of legal action.

They flew from California under the worst possible circumstances.

Monica and Yongmin Zhu came to Westchester Medical Center from their home in the San Francisco Bay area city of Concord to be at the bedside of their 21-year-old son, Peter, a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

He was, they said, the love of their lives.

Peter had been critically injured in a skiing accident on Feb. 23, at West Point's ski slope. That Saturday, he lay in the snow, unconscious, not breathing, until a fellow skier found him. Rescuers performed CPR for 15 minutes before they detected a heartbeat.

He was taken to the West Point hospital then airlifted to Westchester, where serious trauma cases are handled. Tests determined Peter's spinal cord was fractured, his brain had lost valuable oxygen. By Feb. 27, he had stopped breathing and was declared brain dead.

"That afternoon, our entire world collapsed around us," his parents said in a court filing. "We cannot even begin to put into words the pain we felt, and continue to feel, seeing our son lying lifeless in his hospital bed.

"Peter was only 21 years old, and had an incredible, bright future ahead of him. Peter was the kindest, most loving and caring young man that you could ever meet."

'We lost a brother'

The cadet was in his final semester at West Point, looking forward to a May graduation, to getting his commission as a medical corps officer and to medical school. He was president of the Cadet Medical Society.

The academy's commander of cadets, Brig. Gen. Steve Gilland, called Zhu "one of the top cadets in the Class of 2019, very well-known and a friend to all. He embodied the ideals of the Corps of Cadets and its motto of duty, honor, country and all who knew Peter will miss him.”

West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams said simply: “We lost a brother today, and the pain will be felt for a long time.”

Instead of looking forward to a bright May graduation with their son in his dress uniform hurling his hat in the air in Michie Stadium, Monica and Yongmin Zhu are planning to lay their only son to rest.

'A piece of Peter'

Peter Zhu may have been declared dead on Feb. 27, 2019, but he was an organ donor, dating back to when he renewed his driver's license in 2014. Doctors would keep his organs alive as they made arrangements for his vital organs to be transplanted, to give others hope for a future life.

Somehow, amid their despair at the loss of their only son and brightest light, the parents saw a glimmer of hope for a different future life.

But they had to act fast.

Peter was the only male Zhu in his generation, the only hope of continuing the family name. According to Chinese culture, only a son can carry on his family’s name. Peter's uncles each have a single daughter, a result of China's "one-child policy."

The clock was ticking for the distraught parents. Westchester's transplant team set March 1 at 3 p.m. for the surgeries that would begin the transplant process.

The parents hired Albany law firm Copps DiPaola Silverman PLLC to make their case to a New York judge. He was about to save lives through organ donation, they said. 

They wanted to retrieve sperm from their son, to allow him to create a new life — to a son he'd never see, born to a woman he would never meet — to carry on the Zhu name.

"We need a (court) order immediately so that we do not miss the small window of opportunity we have to obtain this genetic material in order to preserve the possibility of carrying on Peter's lineage," the California family said in court documents filed March 1 at 9:30 a.m. "On the other hand, if this procedure is not conducted, the chance of obtaining this material will be gone forever and will be left with no possible recourse."

The aim of their petition was clear.

"We are desperate to have a small piece of Peter that might live on and continue to spread the joy and happiness that Peter brought to all of our lives," they said.

A court order sought

Westchester Medical Center had a urologist who could take the sperm and send it to a sperm bank for storage. But while the hospital has become a prominent transplant surgery center, doctors had never been asked to retrieve sperm from a brain-dead organ donor. They would do it, they told the Zhus, but only with a court order.

Attorney Joseph R. Williams filed the petition hours before the transplants were set to begin.

Supreme Court Judge John P. Colangelo gave the medical center an opportunity to object to the order, which it did not. 

Colangelo then directed the medical center to retrieve sperm from Peter, "and to provide such sperm to a sperm bank or similar facility of (the parents') choosing for storage until further order of this court regarding disposition of such sperm."

He also gave the medical center permission to release whatever information was needed to make the transfer possible.

Barbara Kukowski, the medical center's attorney, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Later, a medical center spokesman answered a request for comment with a statement declining as a matter of policy to discuss any specific patient but offering gratitude for the guidance of the court.

'A bittersweet result'

On Sunday, Williams wrote via email: "While we are extremely proud of the successful and landmark efforts made so far on behalf of our clients, the case remains pending, necessitating our discretion."

He continued: "As you would expect, it is a very bittersweet result for the family and, out of respect for their privacy, we cannot discuss further at this time."

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the West Point community will gather for a memorial to a fallen member of The Long Gray Line.

And a private funeral service will be held Thursday at West Point Cemetery, laying a promising cadet to rest in the burial site high above the Hudson, alongside names known to history: Schwarzkopf and Westmoreland, Goethals and Custer.

Then a grief-stricken couple will return to California, their hearts broken, but with a piece of Peter intact.

The Long Gray Line continues, and the Zhu line has the promise of living on.

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