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"The Giver is Twice Blessed"

by John U. Bacon

      All transplant stories start with tragedy. What happens next is the miracle. Never have so many creators and recipients of those miracles been in one place at the same time than were present Wednesday night in the Orlando Ray's ballpark.

All transplant stories start with tragedy. What happens next is the miracle.

Almost 10,000 of them -- including donor families, living donors, transplant recipients and their families -- arrived for the Transplant Games opening ceremony. From Thursday through Saturday, 1708 athletes who have received life-saving transplants will compete in 12 sports, and will be cheered on by families who elected to donate their loved ones' organs so that the athletes could live. This is the only brand of Olympics where the most important athletic event is the opening ceremony. Just by walking into the stadium under their own power, the athletes declare victory in their fiercest competition -- a genuine life-and-death battle. The atmosphere was even more charged when the donor families followed the athletes onto the field. The ovation lasted over 20 minutes, with no let up in the cheering, the whistling or the crying. Talk to some of the organ recipients, and you understand why. There is the 33-year-old Virginia woman who, when she met the 55-year-old man who received her father's heart, pressed her ear against his chest to hear her dad's heart beat again. Both were crying, as were the hundred-plus hospital liaisons on hand to learn more about transplants. And there is the story of the heart recipient who, at his first transplant softball game in Tulsa, Oklahoma, met a woman who had had a kidney transplant a few years earlier. The thirty-something duo quickly discovered they had more in common than just borrowed organs, and married soon thereafter. When you hear these stories, sometimes it's difficult to tell who benifitted more from this remarkble gift. As Shakespeare said, "The giver is twice blessed" -- not only by the gratitude of the recipient, but also for the quiet joy such an act of generosity generates inside them.


A donor mother's story
        Janyce Iturra, from Eugene, OR, remembers her son, Aaron, 15 at the time, watching a TV program on organ donation. "He got teary-eyed and said, 'Mom, I want to do it.'" Three years later, Aaron had become a strapping, 6 foot 3, 230-pound high school football player preparing to attend art school in New York City. He was also preparing to testify against a mother-son crime team, when two young men hired by the felonious mother burst into their home early in the morning of October 3, 1994. Janyce at first thought the yelling was coming from the television, until she heard a gunshot. Her son had been shot in the head. The two boys received ten years in jail, the mother a life term, but Aaron had received a death sentence. Janyce was overwhelmed by the events, and the need to nurture her other children at the moment of Aaron's passing in the hospital ten hours later, but she had to make a tough call. "My daughter Augustina said, 'Mom, you already know what Aaron's decision is.'" Janyce signed the form and took her family home, without giving it any more thought. But as the months passed, she started to wonder about the people who received Aaron's heart, pancreas, liver and two kidneys. She decided to meet them, but it was no small task. Like most states, Oregon's laws governing contact between organ donors and recipients are more stringent than those for adoption. When she started corresponding with the heart recipient through official intermediaries, all identifying information had to be whited out, as if they were prisoners. But Iturra's case became a cause celebre in the Northwest, and through the media's extensive coverage, the recipient pieced it together. Two-and-a-half years after they initiated their correspondence, Janyce Iturra met the recipient of her son's heart -- on Valentine's day, 1997. Across the table Aaron's mom saw a 52-year-old man named Tom Jacobson, a pastor in Forest Grove, Oregon. He had waited three years for a donor, and had only ten hours to live when his transplant arrived. Jacobson's heart was in such bad shape that when the doctors removed it, it fell apart in their hands. The meeting was an emotional one, of course. So was Tom's second marriage, on December 12, 1998, with Aaron's mom serving as Jacobson's mother in the ceremony. Iturra has since met the kidney recipients, and contacted the other two recipients, too. "They all start their sentences the same way," she says. "'I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you and your son." Two years ago in Columbus, Ohio, Iturra attended her first Transplant Games. "I got angry for a couple days," she recalls, "because I knew I would not have been there if my son was alive, and then I cried for three more days, because transplanting absolutely works. I didn't learn until then that it's okay to get angry, it's okay to cry, that I wasn't alone. There were a lot of us in that stadium. "I used to be a single parent with five kids. Now I've got ten. It's what's held me together. That's the healing part for me. "It's the best decision I've made in my life."


A recipient's story
        Earl Taylor approached the equation from the other side. A career Air Force man who had led a very active lifestyle, Master Sargeant Taylor, then 43, felt himself grow sluggish seven years ago. Doctors in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, soon discovered why, and the news was not good. Sgt. Taylor, an imposing 6-3 African-American man with a big laugh, suffered from cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart. There is no cure, and as the years passed, his energy ebbed while he faced his inevitable demise. "Sometimes I'd open the storm doors in the front and back of our house, just so I could watch the cars go by," Taylor remembers. "I'd sit there crying by myself. Then I realized, why should I be feeling sorry for myself? I've got a beautiful wife of 24 years, and two beautiful sons. Instead of crying about it, I decided to enjoy the time I had left with my family." He gave his two sons a heart-to-heart talk. "He told me to do everything he'd taught me to do," his younger son Eric, now 21, recalls. "Be responsible for your own actions, work hard, do something positive with your life. And take care of your mother." The irony is, shortly after Taylor had made his peace with his situation, his situation changed. With about a month left to live three years ago, Taylor was cruising down I-35 when he received a call from the hospital telling him to "come on in." In a murder as cruel as Aaron Iturra's, a 25-year-old man was killed on February 4, 1997, when he was caught in the cross-hairs of a drive-by shooting. The man's parents decided immediately to donate their son's organs, and the doctors' believed his heart could save Sgt. Taylor's. "I was scared, nervous," Taylor recalls, "but I decided just to put it in the hands of the Lord. And here I am." Before the transplant, Taylor's wife Evelyn says, "He couldn't do anything. Now he does everything. Everything! He works out, he cooks, he bakes! He's Mr. Mom now. He came right home from the hospital and started baking cookies." When asked where the sudden impulse to bake chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies came from, the barrell-chested Sargeant grins and says, "Hey man, I don't know. I just make cookies every once in a while." "No no," Evelyn interjects. "Every day. Every day!" Taylor's oldest son, Earl Jr., is following his father's foot steps in the Air Force, while his youngest son, Eric, enrolled at Southwest Texas State in 1996. "Earl always wanted to see his son graduate from college," Evelyn says, "and this spring he did! "I might get sick, I could go at any time," Earl says. "I know that. But my life is complete. I saw my son graduated from college." But Taylor's not slowing down. At the Transplant Games he will participate in the five kilometer race walk, the softball toss and the shotput. Baking is not yet on the docket of events, but it will be when he returns to Texas. The Taylors have written to the donor's family through intermediaries, and the family wrote back that they were pleased their son's heart could help someone. Taylor's son Eric, by the way, majored in criminal justice, and will soon join the San Antonio Police Department to do the kind of work designed to stop exactly the kind of cruelty that claimed the life of his father's 25-year-old donor. What does one write to such a family? Evelyn Taylor leans forward, looks you in the eye and says, with a firm deliberateness, "Thank you."


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