For every liver transplant, there are two stories. The story of the donor and the story of the recipient. Sometimes—not often—there is a third story, which brings the recipient and donor family together. This is that story.
David received a liver transplant in January 2015. As he lay in his hospital bed, he began to compose a letter to the donor family. He had “no muscle memory at the time,” so was unable to hold a pencil or touch a keyboard. He asked his father to write the letter for him.
In his letter, David expressed his gratitude as best as words could do. He had been given a new life–and assured the donor family that it “wouldn’t be a life wasted.” He would be an “amazing father” to his two children, ages 6 and 2. He would continue to work as a teacher, and make a difference in many other lives. He would seek out ways to contribute to society—now that he had that chance. (These were also the promises he made to himself.)
David sent the letter to the donor’s family through approved hospital channels. In the letter, he found the courage to ask for a meeting. He understood that such meetings seldom happen. He never expected one. He simply hoped that someday he might receive a response to his letter.
David tried to picture the family who would receive this letter, to understand their grief. But he knew nothing about them and nothing about the donor.
Jeannine was a nurse her entire life. She and her husband, Tom, had been together for 30 years. During the first years of their marriage, maybe 28 years ago, Jeannine asked her husband to think about organ donation. They were young then and this was all hypothetical to Tom, who at that age didn’t realize what a true gift it could be. Jeannine opened his eyes. He has been an advocate for organ donation ever since.
Jeannine thought that the ability to give someone life, even after one’s own death was “extraordinary and wonderful.” She was adamant about the fact that if she could give that gift she would do it. She never wavered on this early belief.
Life went on in their family, as in most others. Tom and Jeannine had three children, a girl and two boys, and, in time two grandchildren. Jeannine was an incredible wife and mother. The children were her world.
Jeannine was also devoted to children’s causes. She worked with church organizations to address poverty and hunger among children and their families. She also worked, day after day, as an ICU nurse, caring for people in extreme situations, and participated in medical missions to the Philippines.
Some of her ICU patients did not survive, but were able to give the gift of life, through organ donation.
She had seen firsthand the power of the gift of life.
And then, one morning, Jeannine got up to go to work. She had a severe headache that shot up the back of her skull over her head. She had a brain aneurysm. Just 15 seconds later, she was gone.
What happened next was a fulfillment of Jeannine’s life and the inevitability of her love, her infinite love. Jeannine became an organ donor.
Soon after his wife passed away, Tom received a letter. “When I saw the envelope, I was shocked. But in a good way,” he said. “I wanted to see the person to whom my wife had given the gift of life.”
Within weeks, Tom was in his car driving to meet David. Tom was nervous. He did not know what to expect.
The moment Tom saw David, everything, all feelings, just came together. “He looked so well—vibrant—full of life,” Tom said. There was an instant bond, and instant communication. Tom could sense that David was committed to his own life, and to the future. That was something they could share.
A shared story – David, Tom and Jeannine
“Jeannine would have been so very happy to know that she was able to give the gift of life – the greatest gift of all – to David and his family, so that David’s children could have their father for a very long time. That’s the type of person she was. Giving. Loving. Compassionate, “ Tom said.
David Burns is now 15 months post-transplant. He plans to return to teaching, and is pursuing an advanced degree in elementary and special education. He is currently a driver for Uber, tennis instructor at two private country clubs and a singer in the Mission Church choir.
At the same time, he is finding a way to give back to liver patients. David is on the Board of the American Liver Foundation in Los Angeles and Orange County. He visits the hospital where he had his transplant, and goes into the intensive care unit (ICU) to meet with patients. He also tries to go to weekly “liver awareness” meetings, visits patients on the donor list, as well as patients in recovery.
David thinks often about the meeting with his donor family He is now, in his own way, a donor, keeping Jeannine’s legacy alive. He calls the meeting with Tom “miraculous.”
Maybe David has it right: It often seems miraculous that there are transplants, and that we know how to do transplants. But the ultimate miracle may be that there are donors, and donor families who give so much.
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