Two years after my 19-year-old daughter Maya was killed in a freak accident, I met the recipient of her donated heart: a middle-aged Chilean businessman, his wife, and their two children. My book Swimming with Maya describes that initial meeting and the friendship that grew from it, a bond that changed the course of my grief and my life.
In May of 1994, I called our donor coordinator. I intuitively felt that meeting the man with Maya’s heart would help me move on, even though I had no idea how.
Our coordinator, Shelley, told me that only two days earlier Fernando had asked to meet me. What were the odds? Our meeting would take place at the headquarters of the California Transplant Donor Network in San Francisco. Both our donor coordinators would be there. We were to meet on Memorial Day.
When Fernando’s eyes met mine for the first time I was overwhelmed with tongue-tied shyness. I did not know how to greet him, so I simply extended my hand. He clasped it and then pulled me into an embrace that lasted several long moments. As my head rested against his jacket I found myself weeping, and through that sound, I heard the steady beat of Maya’s heart in his chest.
“You have given me a part of yourself,” Fernando said as hugged me and stroked my hair. “The child who lived in you is living in me. I have so much respect for what you have done.”
When Fernando and I ended our embrace, his wife Penny took me in her arms. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have a husband,” she said. “There are no words to thank you.” The couples’ two children stood beside their parents staring up at me.
That meeting marked a sea change in my grief journey. I could no longer pretend that Maya was simply away on a trip from which she would somehow miraculously return. Fernando had given me proof that my daughter was dead – but not entirely. Her vitality made it possible for him to live his life in ways he had been unable to do for a decade. I not only heard Maya’s beating heart in his chest, I sensed her presence as vividly as if she were standing next to me in that room.
At subsequent meetings, our conversations were tender and painful, full of his overwhelming gratitude and my wild swings between grief for Maya and joy for Fernando. But after our third meeting in 1996, I decided that it was better for me not to meet with him again. Unless I could let go of Fernando, I would never be able to fully let Maya go and reconstruct my life.
Over the years, Fernando and I stayed in touch through emails and phone calls. I learned to incorporate Maya’s life so deep in memory that she became the water I swam in and the air I breathed each day. I no longer needed physical reminders as I once did.
Maya’s heart saved Fernando’s life, and meeting him saved mine. Fernando lived 14 years beyond his transplant. We remained friends until he died of cancer in 2006.
If you would like to consider becoming an organ donor, transplant professionals recommend that you:
- Talk to your family about your decision. Family members will be approached at the time of your death if organ donation is a possibility, and they will need to give consent.
- Sign a donor card. You can find out about the laws governing donation in your state by visiting www.shareyourlife.org, the Donate Life America website. You can register to become a donor on the site.
- Educate yourself and others about donation. Debunk any myths you might have heard.
- Tell others about donation. One gift can save up to seven lives, and tissue donation can improve the lives of dozens more.