The following is from liver and kidney recipient, Jeff. He was transplanted on May 4, 2007 at Banner Good Samaritan, now called Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. He answers these questions and writes in the hope that his reflections may be helpful to other recipients.
Initially, were you afraid or hesitant to write to your donor family?
Yes, I was hesitant because of the trauma this family had endured and I didn’t want to impose on them or their feelings. I wanted to wait until they reached out first. I was actually sick to my stomach that someone has lost his life, and I was alive. I cared for their loss more than myself. I had a Mass said for the family, prayed that God might help them. This was the hardest part of everything, including my illness. I felt that the pain this family was feeling had to be paralyzing. It was hard for me to learn that Josh, my donor, was only 19 years old. I really wished I could have traded places with him. I knew I could not. This was very hard for me.
The donor family reached out to you first. If they had not, would you have written them right away or waited some time before writing?
I’m not sure. It is very hard to write or contact a family who has lost a loved one. Being very honest, I still feel that I gained from their loss. It just isn’t a natural thing, and nothing really prepared me on how I would feel about this. When all this happened, and I did receive the gift of life, it was like a bolt of lightning hit me with all its power. It doesn’t seem right to simply say “thank you” to this donor family for this young boy who saved my life when he should still be here. I wanted to be the one who died, not Josh. He was so young and I have already had a good life. It is so hard to accept his death and my new life. I am not a selfish person. I am happy to give and not receive.
How did you feel when you wrote that first letter to Josh’s family?
I was really filled with fear, but more than that, I kept thinking about how selfless these people were to give to me in their time of tragedy. I thought I wanted to meet them but I didn’t know how to go about that, and I didn’t believe that I would be of much comfort to them. I wanted to help somehow, but I was a perfect stranger with their son’s organs in me.
How has this experience helped your healing process?
I don’t think I would have healed very fast without writing to and eventually meeting Josh’s family. I would have a big hole in my heart for a long time. The transplant has changed me forever and has changed Josh’s family as well. People who don’t communicate with their donor family are missing something that can bring them healing as well. In writing to and meeting Josh’s family, I have been helped so much.
From your perspective, how has your writing to Josh’s family and meeting with them helped their family to heal?
Josh’s family has told me that their meeting me and my wife has helped them a great deal. I can honestly say that I feel better because they feel better having met me. It’s such a small effort on my part. Josh’s family made such a huge effort in a terrible time.
What would you say to recipients who are struggling with writing to their donor families, especially if that donor family has not written to them?
Quit thinking so hard, and keep it simple. It’s like riding a bike. It looks so hard at first, but just do it. Both parties will heal in many ways. I know there’s a mental block. It’s not natural to do this. For me, the emotion that I felt most was fear. Did they even want to hear from me? Would they want to meet me? I thought about it a lot and how donor families are good people to do this for someone that they don’t even know. I also did a lot of praying for guidance for all of us. Both of our families will never be the same. I have learned to pass the word on to other people about saving lives through organ donation. I care for my fellow man and value life every minute, now more than ever.
You eventually met your donor family. How did you feel when you met?
Total relief, sorrow, fear and hope that they would accept my wife and me. They wanted to meet us. It gave me comfort and relief that we could help them.