Joey and Me: Meeting My Donor Family

My family and I send holiday cards annually; they include pictures of vacations, and we always include information about how I am doing health wise. Friends and family are interested especially since 11 years ago on August 8th, I received a new heart.

Ever since the first year, we’ve sent the card to my donor family, so they would know how well I was doing with the heart that belonged to their child. But the address belonged to the hospital, not their house. You are not allowed to know anything about your donor family, unless they contact you or say otherwise. They never wrote back, so for many years, I left them alone, knowing it was probably hard to contend with the loss of their child.

In July 2008, my family and I attended the U.S. Transplant Games in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was my first time at the Games. The U.S. Transplant Games are Olympic games for transplant recipients, living donors and donor families. I joined Team Maryland and participated in the 5k race.

When I was there, I got to meet other transplant recipients who met their donor family or stayed in touch with them. One thing I will never forget was a man who contacted the person who had his daughter's heart. He said he asked questions like, “what’s your favorite food or favorite animal.” I thought this sounded silly at first, but the man cared deeply about the well being of his daughter's organs and how the recipient was doing. The simplest responses made him happy.

I felt so inspired; I decided to write to my donor family. This time I wrote them a personal letter, and told them about my cat, Pumpkin, and my family--I live with my younger sister and two parents in Rockville, Maryland. I told them I am healthy, how I played sports with ease, love cooking, and was doing well in school. I waited and waited, hoping they would finally write back.

Then, one month later, when I was getting the mail, I saw an envelope from Atlanta, Georgia. I didn’t know anyone from Georgia, but since it was addressed to me, I opened it. On the cover of the card, there was a picture of an orange cat. Hmm, I thought, this looks like my cat, so they must know me. I carefully opened the card and skimmed it. What stood out for me in the card was, “Your heart is from our son, Joey.”

I quickly ran to my mom, telling her I had something important to tell her. I read every word carefully: “Joey’s birthdate is 8/1/96. I believe you are very close in age. He has two brothers. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. If you would like to see pictures, I can do that too.” She continued, “I am so glad you are doing well and that Joey’s heart has been good.” Tears filled my eyes and ran down my face. My mom cried too and immediately called my dad. “I can’t believe this, I can’t believe this,” my mom said over and over. Because of the letter, September 9, 2008 was one of happiest days of my life.

Team Maryland’s manager arranged a phone call between my donor family and my family. At first just my parents talked to Joey’s parents--I was too nervous to talk. As they were talking, I kept debating whether I had the nerve to talk to them. I eventually joined the call, and I could tell they were warm and strong people. They told me funny, touching stories about Joey when he was alive. I felt like I already knew them after the phone call.

I met Carolyn and her sixteen year old son at the 2010 Transplant Games in Madison, Wisconsin. We had arranged to meet them at a hotel conference room. As I walked up the stairs, I felt panicked and had butterflies in my stomach. Of course, my parents rushed us to go inside. If I had the chance, I would have liked to take my time and savor the moment.

There were two members of my donor family, smiling at me. I hugged them and sat down. I gave Carolyn and her son a cookbook of collected original recipes from my family members. I have four grandmothers, so each one contributed recipes.

Carolyn handed me a box. I opened it, and there was a beautiful, silver bracelet with a heart charm. Carolyn twisted the notch on the bracelet and fastened it on my wrist. I noticed she had a bracelet too, with many colorful charms. Since then, I added a cat and elephant charm. Joey loved elephants.

Carolyn is such a positive, cheerful person; everything ran smoothly. We explored Madison, and before they left on August 1, Team Maryland served a chocolate cake in honor of Joey’s birthday. Carolyn and I blew out the candles together. Joey would have been fourteen. He and I both love chocolate cake.

When I look at the heart charm, I always think of my donor family. I feel like they are there, every step of the way in my life, and that’s very important to me.

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