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Smell the Coffee: Organ donors live on in others

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A little over a year ago, I wrote about a Texas couple who lost their 13-year-old daughter, Taylor, from injuries received in a skiing accident. When told that Taylor wouldn't survive, the family agreed to donate her organs, believing it was something she would've wanted.

Taylor's heart went to a 39-year-old Arizona mother of two whose heart had been failing for years, and even though recipients of donated organs are usually kept confidential, publicity following Taylor's death enabled both the donor and recipient families to recognize their connection. They decided to meet.

At their meeting, Taylor's mother was able to put her head against the recipient's chest and hear her daughter's heart beating. A part of her daughter was still alive, even if that part was now in someone else.

So much time had passed since I'd written that particular column that I'd completely forgotten about it until I received an email from Kelly Paynter, of South Carolina. She was searching online for information on organ donors when she stumbled across my story.

"It's been almost two years since I lost my mom," Kelly wrote in her email. Her mother, Minnie Paynter, died at age 52 from a pulmonary embolism on March 21, 2011. Many years earlier, mother and daughter had registered together to be organ donors.

"Mom became a donor the day I received my driver's license at age 16. I was standing in line to get my picture made, filling out the general information, and the guy asked if I wanted to donate my organs. I said yes. Mom stopped me. She was against it. I told her I wanted to live longer than my death, and since cryogenics was out of the picture, I said I'd just find me a new body. Mom liked the idea of living on in other people, so she had her license redone that same day to indicate her intent to be an organ donor as well."

Minnie Paynter was one of those admirable single moms. She managed to get off welfare after putting herself through college, while at the same time raising a daughter -- Kelly -- who struggled with asthma and epilepsy.

"Mom was one of nine children," Kelly told me. "She was the daughter of a coal miner. They were very poor. My mother was the only one to graduate college, and she graduated with honors."

Kelly's pride in her mom was clear. As was how badly she missed her.

"I need to find these people who received some part of her," wrote Kelly. "I would like to look into my mom's eyes again. Can you please help me find the people she saved? I cannot tell you how painful it felt when I laid my head one last time on her chest, to not hear her heart beating ..."

Not long after I began trying to track down the recipients, medical privacy laws brought me to a screeching halt. All I could learn were the steps required for a family member to follow.

I wrote Kelly an email, telling her she would need to personally approach the organ transplant coordinator at the hospital where her mother was treated. The person I had talked to recommended she write a letter addressed to the person who received the donation. They said in the letter, she should tell something about the donor and how much it would mean to meet them just once, and then include contact information. The transplant coordinator would then get the letter to the recipients, and it would be up to them whether to make contact.

I felt as though like I was letting Kelly down because that's all I could get, but she took it from there. And her results were fast. I expected it would take months, but it didn't.

Kelly contacted the hospital where her mom passed away and was given the number for the organ donation center that had received her mom's organs.

"Within the hour, I was told two families had been given my mother's corneas and that those recipients had already sent a letter requesting contact with the donor's family. They then put me in contact with a mediation center that allowed me to do a three-way call with each recipient. I was able to speak to the people who my mom gave sight to! I was also informed that she had saved a man's life with her bone donation. That family had already requested contact too, so I'm waiting to be put in touch with them through the tissue center. They told me I will be receiving photos of the people my mother helped save. And I was also notified she was given the bronze star because her donations were not rejected by anyone!"

Kelly posted on Facebook about what she'd learned about her mom's organs and soon began receiving messages from all over. In the days since, Kelly said her phone and email seem to go off constantly with people wanting to share their donation or recipient story, or simply telling personal stories they had about her mom.

Kelly said it's like Christmas is still going on, that each new contact is another gift. That her mom is still around. That she had things yet to do.

That she continues to live on in so many people.

"I would love for you to write about my mom because I truly believe my mom still has work to do," Kelly wrote.

So many families whose loved ones donated their organs don't realize it's possible to be in contact with the recipients, and there are so many who don't understand organ donation at all.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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