Loved ones of 19-year-old Connor Eckhardt, from right, his mother Veronica Eckhardt, aunt Terri Mehrguth, sister Sabrina Eckhardt, 18, father Devin Eckhardt and close friend Jaclyn Westfall, 20, look on as a helicopter carrying Connor's heart flies off from Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach on Thursday. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / July 17, 2014)

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Veronica Eckhardt bent over the hospital bed, sponging paint onto the sole of her son's left foot.

"Connor would not like what we're doing," she remarked, but his foot did not twitch.

Doctors had declared Connor Eckhardt brain-dead the day before, at age 19. Machines breathed for him in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit at Hoag Hospital.

Veronica's husband, Devin, held his son's leg steady as she continued to apply a mixture of brown and blue, Connor's favorite colors.

Their son's decision to donate his organs had allowed the couple extra time at his bedside. Tests needed to be run. Appropriate organ recipients had to be identified.

On the day of his surgery, Veronica had been thinking of footprints they made when Connor was little. She wanted to make another set, so her mother and father-in-law went to buy supplies at Michaels. These painted prints would commemorate his end.

"Although his footprints will no longer be walking on the earth, his imprints will still be there in so many peoples' lives," she said.

The clock ticked past 2 p.m. Connor's organs were scheduled to be removed in two hours.

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Synthetic drug is hard to trace

The previous Saturday, an otherwise healthy Connor had smoked "spice" — a substance made from plants treated with chemicals that bind to the brain's cannabinoid receptors.

The synthetic pot is thought of as a legal, untraceable way to get high, but the effect can be orders of magnitude more powerful than marijuana, said Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, executive medical director of Hoag's neurosciences institute.

Also called "K2," spice can overwhelm brain circuitry, possibly leading to psychosis, kidney injury, high body temperature, heart attack or, as in Connor's case, death.

Concentrations of chemicals in spice vary, as do the chemicals themselves, making it difficult for users to know what they are smoking and how it might alter their brains.

"There's no way to tell when you cross the line from the expected effects to the lethal effects," Brant-Zawadzki said.

Whether because he stopped breathing or his heart stopped pumping blood, or both, Connor's brain was deprived of oxygen and began to swell.

Tests run at the hospital would not detect spice. The ever-changing components make it difficult for scientists to develop a standard way to trace it. But the hospital found no sign of other drugs. And he had the small, square packet of spice still in his pocket.

Legislators and law enforcement have trouble keeping up with spice too, since manufacturers simply change one part of the banned components to make it legal again.

In California, there is no punishment for possessing spice, Newport Beach Police Officer Bill Hume said.

The drug is often labeled "not for human consumption," and marketed as potpourri or incense. But many believe it is safe to smoke since it was once easily found at gas stations and head shops.