Meeting My Donor’s Family For the First Time

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Samantha’s family & my family

“Hello” I answered the phone. Recognizing the number as one from Fairfax Hospital. It was the social worker. It was weird that she was calling but I had my one year transplant clinic appointment coming up & I assumed she wanted to prepare me for some things we would discuss. “I have a letter for you from your donor’s mother. Would you like me to email it to you?” I was in shock, I hadn’t sent my letter yet. It’s not often that a recipient receives any response from their donor’s family and it’s even more rare that the donor’s family writes first. The only word that came out of mouth was “Yea.” With shaking hands, I immediately went to my email and started to read.

“Dear Recipient,

It is with both sadness and joy that I write you this letter. My daughter, my heart passed way 12 months ago, on June 19, 2016.”

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Angela listening to me breathe

Tears started to run down my face. I continued to read about Samantha. I felt sadness that she had passed away and sadness for the grief her family had endured over the past year. My heart hurt for them. But I was grateful that she left me the gift of life through a new pair of lungs. It was a while before the tears would stop. I immediately called my mom. She thought something bad had happened because I was crying so hard. “I received a letter from my donor’s mom,” I cried into the phone. She came home right away and I read her the letter. She too cried with me. I called my brother, Byron, who lives in Boston. After I read the letter all he could say was, “Wow” and I could hear the tears in his voice. I read that letter many times that day & I still read it often today.

I was planning to hand write my letter to her family and send it after the 4th of July but decided that, since I had received one first, I wanted to send mine out right away. I changed a few things & sent my letter only hours after receiving the letter from Angela. And thankfully I did because the Donate Life Donor Family Advocate was going out of town for the next week & would not have been available to send the letter on to Angela, had I sent it after she left.

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Samantha’s sisters & I (Allison, left & Sara, right)

One thing Angela & I wrote in our letters was that we wanted to meet each other. I was excited she wrote that she wanted to meet because this is something I always wanted. To meet my donor’s family and thank them in person. From the moment I found out I had a lung transplant, my mind immediately went to my donor and since that day I’ve thought about them every single day. Who were they? What did they like to do? I even wondered what caused their death. I now knew that my donor’s name was Samantha, some things she enjoyed and I would later find out more. I was anxious to plan our meeting. We decided on September 9th because my brother was going to Spain for 3 weeks in August and of course we wanted him to be included in the meeting. We decided not to communicate before then so it was two months before I would get to talk with Angela again.

We pulled up to the complex where the Donate Life office was, our planned meeting spot. Emotions I have never felt before started to flood my body. I was nervous, excited and even scared all at the same time. “What would they think of me?” “Will I say something stupid?” Thoughts similar to those you would have before a first date started to run through my mind. This was WAY more important than a first date, though. Then I started to think, “Am I ready for this?” Immediately followed by, “Of course you’re ready for this.” Butterflies started to go crazy in my stomach.

We waited outside until we got the call to head up the elevator. We walked through the glass doors of the office. There was candy in a small bowl near the coffee counter – I ate two laffy taffy’s as I prepared myself for the meeting. We were told it was time. I walked down the hallway and into the arms of Angela, Samantha’s mom. We both cried into each others shoulders. Neither of us had words for the moment, just tears. Angela had told me that for the first time in a year she felt Samantha’s presence. That meant so much to me, that I could give Angela something so special. I let Angela listen to me breathe…hear Samantha breathe for me. Most importantly, I let Angela talk to me about Samantha. The donor family meeting was so important and special to me. The day was all about Samantha, though, & the great gift she left behind.

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Samantha’s dog, Benelli Rose

After our initial meeting, I invited Angela and the rest of her family back to my parent’s house for some BBQ. I had been really nervous to ask for the fear that they would say no. They accepted the invite! We spent the next 4 hours hanging out. We sat out on the screened-in porch all night. I learned more about Samantha and they learned more about me. We shared photos and stories. Samantha’s youngest sister, Allison, is only 16 years old and at first she was quiet. But as the night went on I felt her becoming increasingly more comfortable and talkative – it was so special for her to open up to me. I also got to meet Samantha’s sweet sweet dog named Benelli Rose. I am usually afraid of bigger dogs, but she was so sweet, gentle & kind!

Towards the end of the evening, I stood in the hallway of my parents house with Sara (Samantha’s younger sister) and she said that she felt so comfortable around me. Like we had know each other for more than just hours. I felt the same way; it was an instant bond. A bond that we will have forever.

The night flew by and some parts are even a blur. There is a saying about not remembering everything that someone says, but you will remember how they made you feel. I don’t remember everything we talked about that night but I do remember how I felt. I was excited and happy. I remember laughing & smiling a lot. I also remember feeling sad & holding back tears at times. But most of all, I remember how comfortable I felt all evening.

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Samantha’s parents & I (Ray, left & Angela, right)

Angela, Ray, Sara & Allison & I have kept in touch. We met in Richmond last weekend and it was so nice to see them again. I hope to find my way down to Wilmington, NC one day to meet the rest of Samantha’s family (especially her grandmother) and her friends. I want to see where she grew up and enjoy some of the same places Samantha enjoyed.

Meeting Samantha’s family has been the greatest experience of my life. I encourage all recipients to write a letter to their donor’s family. Even if you don’t receive a response, letting them know how thankful you are is so important. And it could just mean the world to your donor’s family. If your the donor’s family, I encourage you to be open about writing a letter to the recipient and the possibility of meeting them. Angela has told me that she felt angry about Samantha’s death and when she received my letter she felt peace. Knowing that I gave her that, was so so special to me. My decision to write her and meet was definitely the right one.

If you’d like to read my letter to Samantha’s family, click here. To read Angela’s full letter to me, click here.

 

 

3 comments

  1. So beautiful, Jackie. I know you don’t really know me but I know your mom through Mrs. Basalyga, and my daughter Candice was in the same grade as Byron. I have followed your story and just wanted to say I have been so inspired by you. I’m sure you’ve heard that a lot and are probably tired of it but really can’t think of another way to describe the way your story makes me feel. It is so wonderful you have given Samantha’s family the opportunity to meet you. When I saw you letting her mom listen to you breathe with Samantha’s lungs it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed. I will keep praying for your continued good health and that any more bumps in the road smaller and much further apart ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jackie, I saw your story on the news and immediately stopped what I was doing. I live in Northern Va as well and have Cystic Fibrosis. What an amazing inspiration and fighter you are 😄. Hope you have a wonderful evening.

    Liked by 1 person

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