Woman seeks family of organ donor who saved her grandmother's life decades ago [video]

Woman seeks family of organ donor who saved her grandmother's life decades ago [video]

September 28th, 2016 by Steve Johnson in Local Regional News

LSU mass communication graduate student Danielle Kelley browses on her laptop on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2016, in the Journalism Building. She is responsible for building an organ transplant database in her search to find the Chattanooga family whose deceased relative donated organs to Danielle's grandmother.

Photo by Zoe Geauthreaux

Gallery: Young woman searching for Chattanooga donor who saved her grandmother's life

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A letter to the family

Dear, sweet family. Dear, sweet mom and dad. Dear, sweet brother and sister. Dear, cousin and grandparent and uncle and aunt and friend. I never would have met my grandmother if it weren’t for your boy.

I want to catch you up on Debbie’s life. She was a young wife and mother of three at the time of the life-saving transplant. She not only survived the transplant, but she lived. She lived to see all three of her daughters graduate grow up and drive and go to prom and graduate high school and all those other milestones. She lived to see the birth of her first grandchild (me). She lived to love her husband. She lived to go to church. She lived to have fun. She lived.

She passed away 10 days before my 13th birthday. But thanks to your decision, I loved her for 13 wonderful years. I can see her now, laughing and playing Twister and falling down without fear on Christmas morning with our family. I can see her now, in the kitchen frying squash. I can see her now, bent over her garden and planting gladiola bulbs in beautiful spring sunlight. I can see her now, behind the camcorder filming playful moments with her cocker spaniel, Tibby. I can see her now, looking me in the eye and telling me how much she loves me.

Dear, sweet, wonderful, generous and kind family. Thank you for the gift of life. My family is forever grateful. Your son died 29 years ago on or right before Sept. 21, 1987 in the Chattanooga area. I would like to see you face to face. I would like to show you pictures of my grandmother after the transplant. I would like to cook you some of her recipes. I would like to tell you stories. I would like to hear yours.

I would like to say thank you.

If you think you match this description, and you would like to meet me too, please email me at organconnections@gmail.com. I hope to talk to you soon.

Forever Thankful,

Danielle Kelley

Granddaughter of Debbie Newman


Check out Kelley's donor search website at OrganConnections.com.

Twenty-nine years ago this week, on what must have been a very sad day, a Chattanooga family made a decision that would profoundly change the life of a young Louisiana girl who had not yet even been born.

And now, that Louisiana girl, 23, would like to say thanks.

If she can only find her benefactors.

Danielle Kelley's grandmother Debbie Newman was 35 in 1987 and didn't have long to live.

Newman couldn't walk across a room without gasping for breath. She had a condition known as primary pulmonary hypertension, where her heart was pumping extra hard and was wearing out.

She needed a heart and lung transplant, something rare in those days, and she needed it fast.

While her husband and their three young daughters stayed in east Louisiana, Newman had been living for months in an apartment in Houston, Texas, with help from money donated by friends and neighbors, so she would be close to Methodist Hospital, where the transplant operation would be performed if a donor was found.

The call came on Sept. 21 and she was rushed to the hospital.

Hours later, she had a new heart and lungs, one of about 250 patients in the entire world who had undergone similar surgery, according to her family.

There were complications — her body's immune system tried to reject the new organs, so her doctors had to cripple her immune system.

"When we would go visit her, we had to scrub up and then wear a mask and gloves," her daughter, Rebecca Kelley, now a librarian at Louisiana State University, remembered. Because her immune system was weakened, "they wanted to protect her from any germs."

It was more than three months before Debbie returned home, but when she did, much of her small hometown of Wilson turned out. She recorded that day's events in her journal.

"...Right before we get to Wilson, I started to see 'Welcome Home Debbie and Lynn' signs every few places along the road. Then all of a sudden, I heard a police siren. An unmarked police car was ahead of us and then when we got into town, there at Homer's Store was all the town people of Wilson and lots of family and friends and a newspaper cameraman and the Channel 2 TV crew. [Daughter] Jamie met me with a hug and flowers and then [daughters] Rebecca and Joanna hugged me. i was crying — everyone was. When I get home, the house was decorated with signs and streamers and a brand new bike was standing in the living room.... I had told Mama one of the first things I wanted to do after my transplant was to ride a bike and she remembered. It was truly one of the best days of my life."

For much of her life, Newman had a swelling in her face and kidney problems from the drugs she was taking.

But Debbie didn't complain.

"She always was really thankful and grateful for that gift she was given," Rebecca said, "and vowed to live her life to the fullest."

Rebecca has her own reason for giving thanks.

"My life would have been really different if my mom had died when I was 12," she said. "I'm very grateful for the years we got — I look at them as bonus years."

At the time of her transplant, Newman wrote a letter to her donor family, without knowing their names, which was delivered by the donor procurement agency. But there was no response.

Newman died in 2006, 19 years after her transplant, without ever meeting the family that saved her life.

All the family knows is that Debbie's donor was a young man or a teenager who died in Chattanooga in September 1987.

But her granddaughter, Danielle, is determined to at least let the family know that what they did had a huge impact on her life.

"I was born in 1993, and my grandmother had the transplant in '87," Danielle said. "Had she not had the transplant, she would have died before I was born."

Grandmother and granddaughter formed a tight bond, Rebecca Kelley said.

"She was very, very close with mom, she's the only grandchild," she said. "I was a single mom and my mom and parents helped out a lot. It was such a great thing that they had each other."

Influenced by her own experience, Danielle has worked for more than three years as a volunteer at the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency, helping others find a needed transplant. She regularly shared her own story with high school students, to convince them to check the organ donor box when they got their driver's licenses.

She also met organ recipients who had found their donor families.

"It brings me such joy to see these stories," she said.

Now, as a graduate student at Louisiana State University, she has used a Knight Foundation grant to build a website, OrganConnections.com, to help donor families get in touch with those who benefited from their caring.

Those who donated or received hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys or other organs register their names and list the date and city where the donation took place.

The information is not visible to the public. But Danielle and others helping her on the project will review the postings and determine if there is a possible match. If so, they will contact the appropriate state donor organization to confirm there is a connection, and then they will contact the respective families.

She's hoping to start here in Chattanooga, with the family that donated its loved one's organs that saved her grandmother's life.

"I'm probably too late," Danielle said. "They may have moved, or may not be alive now."

"I understand if they don't want to talk," she said. "But if they read this or hear about it from a friend, I just want them to know that we are thankful. I want them to know it extended her life, but it also affected every single person my grandmother knew.

"I know it is 29 years later, but a thank you can come 29 years later."

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673, sjohnson@timesfreepress.com, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, or on Facebook, www.facebook.com/noogahealth.