One spring morning in 1994, about 60 of Ron Green's friends and colleagues gathered in the Secretary of the Army's mess at the Pentagon for what should have been a happy occasion. After 32 years in the military, the 53-year-old Army colonel was retiring. With his wife, Beverly, and 24-year-old daughter, Christina, looking on, Green was to receive the Army's Legion of Merit medal for distinguished service.
Guests carrying flowers made their way to a reception room, where they sipped punch from crystal glasses and nibbled cookies and nuts piled high on a silver service. A baker had spent hours preparing a sheet cake decorated with the emblem commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II. It featured a five-star field–representing the war's five theaters of operation, among other things–wrapped in a laurel wreath symbolic of peace and victory.
The emblem's design was Ron Green's handiwork. Since arriving at the Pentagon nine years earlier, he had helped direct the Department of Defense staff working on two national celebrations: the bicentennial of the United States Constitution and the World War II anniversary.
With a PhD in theater arts, Ron also saw to the pageantry of concerts at Constitution Hall, ceremonies on the Ellipse, and the reenactment of George Washington's journey from Virginia to New York to take the presidential oath of office. He was a jack of all trades–drafting speeches, writing presidential proclamations, designing educational programs, publications, and emblems.
Ron loved the job; performance was in his blood. His father, a musician, had played trumpet in a jazz band called the Five Aces. Born in a small town in Idaho, Ron had grown up on the road with his family. After graduating from Idaho State University and earning a doctorate from Wayne State University in Michigan, he had taught theater and directed plays at colleges in the West. Even his military career–much of it spent in the reserves–was touched with the smell of greasepaint. In the late 1960s, he was posted to Europe as an Army entertainment director, coordinating USO shows and Broadway musicals for the troops.
Ron gladly would have stayed at the Pentagon. But his health had been slipping. At first, he felt a little fatigue and occasional tightness in his chest. But one evening, arriving at his Colonial home on a cul-de-sac in Springfield, he walked into the living room, knelt down on one knee, then rolled onto his back and clutched his chest. His chest tightened until he thought he was going to choke to death. His older daughter, 26-year-old Shannon, found him on the floor and ran to get a neighbor, an Air Force nurse who had served in Vietnam. The nurse came and called 911. Emergency-room doctors at Fairfax Hospital ruled out a heart attack and diagnosed stress-related angina. "You've got to take it easy," they said, and sent him home.
Things got worse. At work, writing even the shortest statement tied him in knots; he would sit in front of the computer for hours, his mind as blank as the screen before him. Each night, he arrived home from the Pentagon later and later. Often he was seized by what seemed like panic attacks, episodes in which his chest tightened and his breathing grew fast and shallow. More than once, he had been stricken while riding home from work in his carpool, scaring his coworkers.
"What's happening?" they asked.
"I don't know," he answered. "Just get me home and I'll be all right."
Ron finally went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where doctors discovered a congenital heart defect. His aortic valve had formed with only two flaps to push blood away from the heart, not the normal three. The problem had gone undetected all Ron's life. During physicals, doctors had heard an extra click through the stethoscope, but they concluded that Ron had a particularly strong heart. Now his valve had weakened to the point that it no longer closed tightly. Blood was trickling back into the left ventricle, enlarging the muscle while starving his brain and the rest of his body of oxygen.
Surgeons at Walter Reed replaced the valve, but Ron emerged from the operating room no better off. One morning not long after the surgery, he woke up and had no idea where he was. The doctors concluded that he had suffered a stroke and sent him home to recover, but his mental faculties continued to deteriorate. It was as if his brain were a computer in sleep mode; it worked enough to allow him to dress and feed himself but little more. He could barely talk. His short-term memory was so bad that when he tried to write, he would forget the beginning of a sentence before reaching the end.
Beverly took control of their lives, paying the bills and shadowing her husband. It was like caring for a toddler. On Sundays, when they went to services at Messiah United Methodist Church in Springfield, she would walk Ron to a pew before joining the choir at the front of the sanctuary. Afterward, he would sit as the church cleared and wait for Beverly. Without her, he couldn't find the way out.
At times Ron grew so distraught that he would sit in a chair and rock back and forth, holding his head in his hands and asking, "Why my brain? Why my brain?"
Ron's retirement was given–the army automatically discharges personnel with heart problems. In military parlance, he was being "medically boarded out." The people gathered in the Secretary's mess wanted to send Ron off with honor and dignity. Officials he had worked with at the National Archives and the Center of Military History gave warm speeches. He received a certificate from President Clinton. Ron's commanding officer, Lieutenant General Claude Kicklighter, spoke of his spirit and talent and awarded him the Legion of Merit medal.
Then it was time for Ron to say a few words. Though he stood nearly six feet tall, he had dropped 50 pounds and weighed only 145. His dress uniform hung off his frame. His face was gray. Throughout the ceremony, Kicklighter had stood next to him, discreetly holding Ron's elbow so that he wouldn't topple over.
Stepping before the gathering to talk, Ron gulped for air. Haltingly, he squeezed out "Thank you . . . for coming."
ONE GREAT KID
Andrew Justin garde turned 16 on Thursday, August 25, 1994, with little fanfare. A few buddies came over to his family's brick home in a quiet Gaithersburg subdivision, where they barbecued hot dogs and swam in the backyard pool. In the evening, Andrew sat down to dinner and a birthday cake with his father, Sam, and his mother, Kathy.
The big event of the day was a 16-year-old's rite of passage: a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles office to get a driver's license. Kathy drove Andrew to the testing site in the family's year-old Nissan Sentra, and Andrew passed with no problem.
The Gardes had few worries about Andrew behind the wheel of a car. Even as a boy, the youngest of their four children had always nagged others to strap on seat belts. Besides, "AJ," as the family called him, was not the type of kid you worried about much. An honor-roll student at Quince Orchard High School, he seemed bound for great things, just like his older siblings: Jen, an actress; Mary Lou, a banker; and James, a student at James Madison University on his way to becoming a music teacher. Standing nearly six-foot-two and weighing 160 pounds, Andrew was a standout athlete. A few months before, he had been the only sophomore named to the all-Montgomery County lacrosse team.
Andrew had his head on straight. Sure, he loved Metallica and heavy-metal music. And like a lot of teenagers, he tried to make a statement with every haircut, teasing his chestnut-brown locks into a funny pompadour one month, trimming them to a nub the next. But Kathy and Sam worried little about drugs or drinking. Andrew was high on life. He had seemed to escape the angst-ridden-teenager stereotype and retain a sense of wonder about the world. He plunged enthusiastically into every new experience–skateboarding, in-line skating, family reunions. Just recently, he had taken up the bass guitar and joined a garage band called Ritalin.
At Quince Orchard High, Andrew easily could have sat atop the social order. He was a jock and a hunk, his thick hair flopping down over blue eyes. But he seemed to embrace everyone and scorn no one. Friends respected his self-assurance. Among his many pairs of high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers, his favorites were tattered purple ones he had patched with plaid flannel cut from one of his shirts.
The few setbacks he suffered at school didn't faze him. The summer before his 16th birthday, he had waffled about whether to play football after a sophomore year as backup quarterback on the junior varsity team. When he finally decided to give it a try, practices were under way and the coach wouldn't let him join. He stewed a bit, but the next day he tried out and was picked to be Quincy, the school's cougar mascot. Donning the furry brown suit at football games, he danced with the cheerleaders, clowned with the players, and became a crowd favorite.
Kathy and Sam admired their son and thought him more mature than many adults. The Gardes had moved to Gaithersburg in the summer of 1993, when Andrew was 14 and headed into his sophomore year.
Sam, a 52-year-old former Navy submarine engineer, had uprooted the family for a job with Bechtel after 20 years in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Andrew settled into his new life easily. Before school opened, the family was driving home from church one Sunday and passed a car wash sponsored by the Quince Orchard High Class of '96–Andrew's class. Arriving home, Andrew said he wanted to meet the kids he'd go to school with. His parents watched their son stride away, baseball cap jammed on his head. Later, friends told them Andrew had arrived at the car wash, told a funny story or two, and won over the other kids.
Even as they congratulated Andrew for getting his driver's license, Sam and Kathy recognized the volatile mix of cars and teenagers. A few weeks after Andrew's birthday, Kathy slipped into his room and left a newspaper clipping describing a car accident in Bethesda. After drinking too much at a party, a Walt Whitman High School junior with a new driver's license had sped down River Road, spun out of control, and crashed into a tree. The car, a BMW given to the girl ten days before, had been split in half; the girl and a friend were killed.
"Let these girls who died be your guardian angels when you drive," Kathy wrote in a note she attached to the clipping. "Learn from them so their deaths won't have been in vain." Later she and Andrew talked, and Kathy was convinced he understood the risks of drinking and driving.
A few days later, Andrew and a friend arrived home from school and asked to borrow the car. It was September 21, nearly a month after Andrew's birthday, and the boys wanted to try out a new bowling alley nearby. Kathy didn't think twice about handing over the keys to the Nissan. With their older children, she and Sam had lain awake many nights, straining to hear the car pull into the driveway. They probably would do the same with Andrew. But it was daylight. And Andrew was just going bowling.
As the boys headed for the door, Kathy, who worked part time as an orthopedic nurse, warned that she had a staff meeting that evening. Be home by 5:30, she said.
After his retirement, Ron Green's health continued to deteriorate. Once, as he and Beverly left a matinee of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, he blinked at the daylight and asked why he wasn't at work. His new heart valve wasn't helping. He suffered congestive heart failure three times. Each time, Walter Reed doctors drained the fluid from his lungs, medicated him, and sent him home.
In early September, Beverly drove Ron to a military clinic in Burke. He had been straining to breathe, and his face looked nearly black. The admitting nurse took one look at him and yelled for a doctor. Within hours, he was admitted to Fairfax Hospital, where doctors delivered a prognosis. His heart had swollen to twice its normal size; he would die within six weeks if he didn't get a transplant. The average wait for a heart was nearly a year. At Fairfax, the last person to get a heart transplant had waited six months.
Doctors told Beverly to prepare for her husband's death. She began to plan the funeral. Ron's mother, brother, and sister flew in from Tacoma, Washington, to say goodbye. His daughter Christina was already living in the DC area, and Shannon had quit her job at a Colorado ski resort and moved back home.
Several times over the next few days, Ron seemed close to dying. At one point, a nurse telephoned Beverly and said, "We're losing him. How fast can you get here?"
A KNOCK AT THE DOOR
A little before 6 PM on September 21, Kathy Garde was talking on the phone with a friend. Andrew had left for bowling three hours earlier. "I wonder where Andrew is?" she had just said when she heard a knock at the front door.
She opened it to find two police officers. Andrew had been in an accident, one of them said. His friend had been taken to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, along with the driver of a van involved in the accident. Andrew had been taken by helicopter to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. Kathy knew Suburban was the nearest shock-trauma unit.
At the hospital Kathy heard a few details of the accident from police. No drugs or alcohol were involved. Andrew had crashed while speeding over a small hill on Quince Orchard Road, a main artery in Gaithersburg. Area teenagers, Kathy learned later, knew the hill as "the jump"–kids often drove fast as they cleared the rise, hoping to "catch air." Andrew, it appeared, had succeeded; a witness said all four tires of the Nissan had left the ground as it topped the hill. As it landed, the car swerved off the road to the right. With the car headed for a mailbox, Andrew swung the steering wheel to the left, putting the Nissan into a fishtail. It slid across the road and onto the other shoulder, broadsiding a van that had pulled off the road. The driver's-side door absorbed the brunt of the impact.
At Suburban, Kathy saw her son for only an instant as he was being taken to surgery. He was unconscious. He had suffered head trauma, fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, a fractured pelvis, and a torn spleen. Kathy leaned over the gurney and kissed him as he was rolled away.
While Andrew was in surgery, she went to a friend's house in Bethesda to telephone her family. Andrew's sisters worked in New York City, his brother was at James Madison University–but Sam was in London on business. After making the calls, Kathy returned to the hospital.
When Andrew emerged from surgery, she stayed at his bedside, holding his hand. Though he remained unconscious, she talked of happy times–family vacations in Vermont, Sunday-morning pancake breakfasts, childhood games–and told him how much he was loved by his family and friends. She prayed, saying over and over "Trusting You" by Thomas Merton: "Dear God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. . . ."
The morning brought no hope. surgeons had put a shunt in Andrew's head to relieve the pressure on his brain, but to no avail. At 11 AM on September 22, he was declared brain-dead. A ventilator continued to pump air into his lungs, and his heart continued to beat, but Andrew was no longer alive.
Two hours later, Sam Garde arrived after a 16-hour odyssey to reach his son. With Washington-bound flights out of London booked, he had flown to Paris and then New York before landing at National Airport and catching a taxi to Suburban. Andrew's brother and sisters had arrived hours earlier, and now the family huddled in a small private room in the ICU. They were told that someone was available to talk to them about organ donation, but they were too overwrought to think logically. Sam couldn't absorb what had happened. He talked to the neurosurgeon who had operated on Andrew–surely there was some procedure, some miracle drug that could save his boy. But there was nothing.
Later that afternoon the family met with a medical staffer from the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium, the organ-procurement organization for the Washington area. He briefed them on donations. Organs such as the heart, lungs, kidney, liver, and pancreas could be transplanted, as could the cornea, various tissues, and bones. The family could choose to donate some parts of Andrew's body and not others.
Over the next four hours, the family talked with the staffer, Sam and Kathy's priest, and each other. Deep down, they knew Andrew was gone. But watching his chest rise and fall with the ventilator, feeling his still-warm skin, they couldn't let him go. In the end, they agreed to donate everything except his bones. Worried about how Andrew would look in an open casket, his father cast the dissenting vote–a decision he says he would make differently today.
Nationally, about half of the families in such situations decline to allow organ donation. Some believe it's against their religion; others feel that people ought to leave this world as they came into it. For Kathy, the decision to donate brought comfort. The day before, driving to the hospital, her children and husband hundreds of miles away, she had felt more alone than ever before in her life. Here was a chance to make something good come of this. Andrew would have wanted it that way; he had a knack for rallying the family, for bringing brightness to bleak situations.
In her mind, Kathy could picture another family standing beside the bed of a dying loved one. Andrew, she thought, could give someone else life.
A PERFECT HEART
Around 11:30 PM on September 22, a nurse woke Ron. "Mr. Green," she said, "we have a heart for you." Ron's deteriorating situation had bumped him to the top of Fairfax's waiting list. Now it appeared that there was a heart the right size and blood type. Doctors weren't yet certain the organ would be a match, the nurse warned, but Ron was to be prepped for surgery. He asked to call Beverly at home; he couldn't remember the number, so the nurse dialed it for him.
Beverly arrived at the hospital about ten minutes before Ron was to go into surgery. They held hands until the last moment. As Ron was wheeled away, he said, "It's okay, honey, because I know that you know I've always loved you."
Doctors at Fairfax had performed the area's first heart transplant in 1986, and the hospital had been doing a dozen or more every year. After Ron's donor heart arrived, packed in ice, doctors made an incision in his chest, cranked open his ribs, and attached a heart-lung machine to take over circulating his blood. Then, after severing the old heart's moorings and lifting it from his body, they set the donor heart in Ron's chest and began the job of suturing together blood vessels, new and old, sculpting the vein and artery endings to ensure the tightest possible fit.
Seven hours after the doctors opened Ron's chest, the operation was over.
The next morning, the first day of automn, Ron woke up in intensive care and knew the operation had been a success. His brain did not rouse itself gently from its hibernation; feasting on the oxygen-rich blood pumping from the transplanted heart, it leapt to life, processing sights and sounds with speed and clarity that seemed supercharged. From his bed, Ron could see the morning unfolding, with clouds floating by on the brilliant blue sky and the wind bending treetops dressed in early fall colors.
Beverly sensed immediately that the old Ron was back. For months she had been going to church every Sunday and telling people, "Ron will be better next week." Some of her friends, she knew, had begun to duck her, convinced that she was in denial. But the color had returned to Ron's face, his eyes were dancing, and the room filled with his laughter. The two couldn't stop giggling. It was like drinking Champagne and falling in love, Beverly thought later.
Ron's new heart looked to be a good match. Usually during transplants, surgeons give the new heart an electric shock to jump-start it. But the muscle had begun pumping almost as soon as the surgeons had secured the last blood vessel.
In Ron's hospital room after the operation, Beverly asked one of the doctors if her husband had received a "good heart." The doctor said yes and started to leave. But as he reached the door, he stopped and turned toward them. "No, I take that back," he said. "He got a perfect heart."
The first months were not easy. like most transplant patients, Ron was taking powerful drugs to suppress his immune system and prevent it from attacking the foreign heart. His face swelled until it was moon-shaped, and he suffered some paranoia–a common side effect of the prednisone often prescribed after transplant surgery. Ron's recovery, however, was relatively smooth. Doctors took him off the prednisone after six months. Regular biopsies–taken from the heart muscle via a tube inserted through his jugular vein–revealed no rejection, a rarity in transplants.
As he recuperated, Ron vowed to make the most of the gift he had received. He loved his daughters and felt he had been a good father, but his enthusiasm for his job and its long hours had made him a part-time parent. Both his daughters had been athletes in school–Christina was a gymnast and played volleyball, while Shannon was a basketball star and ran track–but he had attended few of their games.
Ron thought of a scene from Thornton Wilder's Our Town in which Emily, the protagonist who dies prematurely at age 26, relives her 12th birthday and is devastated to see the joyless routines of her family. "Do any human beings ever realize life when they live it?–every, every minute?" she asks the narrator.
"No," he replies. "The saints and poets, maybe. They do some."
So Ron committed to living his life to the fullest. Now he and Beverly would spend hours watching squirrels chase each other in the yard or children playing in the street. One day as winter was yielding to spring, Ron spotted an iris beginning to open in the early-morning sun. He called Beverly, and for nearly an hour they sat and watched its petals unfold.
"WHY SHOULD I BE ALIVE?"
One evening, as the one-year anniversary of his transplant neared, Ron drove to pick up Beverly, a consultant for Mary Kay cosmetics, at a company convention in a hotel near Dulles. It was about 9, and the lobby, which stretched the length of a football field, was mostly empty. Ron passed a short man with a bushy mustache standing idly–probably another husband waiting for his wife, Ron thought. The two men nodded in greeting, then Ron sat down on a settee.
After a few minutes, Beverly emerged from the convention and, seeing the other man, paused to talk. As Ron watched, they were joined by a woman with light hair who seemed to know both. After a few minutes, their conversation became animated, with all three casting glances at Ron. Eventually, they made their way over to him.
"Ron," Beverly said, "you've got to meet Mike and Darlene Rowe." Darlene was also a Mary Kay consultant, and she and Mike had met Beverly at other events. But it wasn't until her chat with Mike in the lobby that Beverly learned about his transplant. A 48-year-old systems analyst for the Defense Department, Mike had been troubled by kidney disease since childhood. He had been on the transplant waiting list for nearly two years. Now, as the two men talked, they discovered that their surgeries had occurred on the same day. Both had been told that their organ donor was a 16-year-old boy who had died in a car accident in suburban Maryland.
The two men embraced. As other conventiongoers came into the lobby, they stopped and heard the story of what the two strangers shared. What are the odds of something like this happening? Ron thought. Mike told Ron that he had written the boy's family, thanking them and telling them of his improved condition. "Have you written?" he asked.
Ron had not, though he had thought about the boy often. Like many transplant recipients, he was at times guilt-stricken that his life had been saved by the death of another. Why should I be alive when this young boy died? Ron wondered.
A few days after the transplant, the Washington Post had run a story about a 16-year-old killed in a car crash in Gaithersburg. Beverly read the article, as did many friends at church, and they all concluded that the accident victim was Ron's donor. Ron had not read the story–a photograph had run with the article, and he couldn't bear to see the boy's face. He still had the clipping, tucked away face-down in a dresser drawer.
Now Mike urged him to read the article and write a letter to the boy's family. A few days later Ron went to his bedroom, opened the drawer, and pulled out the clipping. There he saw for the first time the boy who had given him back his life. The photo was Kathy Garde's favorite: Andrew was in his Quince Orchard lacrosse uniform, "47" emblazoned across his chest, holding a lacrosse stick. The Post had cropped the photo so that only his head showed. His hair was neatly cut and combed, and he was smiling.
Ron stared at the picture and cried. Then he read how Andrew had lived and died. "He was so loved," a Quince Orchard student was quoted as saying. "He was an all-around nice person. Always happy. No enemies–none whatsoever." The last paragraph pointed out that doctors had saved some of Andrew's organs for transplant.
"Kathy Garde," it noted, "said she draws comfort from knowing that her son's heart continues to beat."
A few weeks later, in January 1996, Ron wrote Kathy Garde and her family. The letter had to be sent through the Washington transplant consortium–the group does not give out the names of donor families or recipients–and Ron was not 100-percent sure that Andrew was his donor. So he started his letter: "Dear Donor Family: My name is Ron . . . ."
"DO IT FOR ANDREW"
In the weeks following Andrew's death, the gardes tried to rebuild their lives. Sam returned to work, but Kathy couldn't get her heart back into nursing. She enrolled in a religious-studies program at Trinity College, studying scripture, theology, and church history. Family and friends rallied around the Gardes, sending cards and calling often. They talked with a grief counselor and attended monthly meetings of Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents who have lost children. Most of all, Sam and Kathy leaned on each other. Sometimes Sam tried to be the strong one; other times it was Kathy. Some days they just held onto each other and cried.
Andrew's friends grieved, too, and the Gardes spent time helping them. The evening following Andrew's death, the family had gone to a Quince Orchard High football game. Andrew's former teammates had dedicated the game to his memory. Several girls waved placards that read, COUGARS. DO IT FOR ANDREW. Quarterback John Papuchis, after scoring a touchdown, dropped to one knee and pointed a finger heavenward. The Cougars won, 20-0–their first victory of the season.
The next year brought frequent occasions for remembering Andrew. His friends, at Sam and Kathy's urging, stopped by the house to talk. In the spring, the lacrosse team painted Andrew's number 47 on their helmets. At the end of the school year, Quince Orchard students gave the family a yearbook in which some had written notes. "I can't count the number of times I've looked up while lying in bed [at night] and talked to Andrew," said one. Another wrote, "He taught me to be myself, that people will like you if you just be yourself."
The arrival of Ron Green's letter did not surprise the Gardes. Kathy had told transplant-consortium officials that they would be glad to meet the recipients of Andrew's organs. They already knew a little about each one, thanks to a WRTC letter after the accident. All the recipients were Washingtonians: Andrew's liver had gone to a 61-year-old man who was retired with one child. His right kidney had been transplanted to a 48-year-old married man. The recipient of Andrew's heart was a 53-year-old man, married with two daughters. "His previous illness had made it necessary for him to retire early from the military," the WRTC letter had noted, "but he is looking forward to a productive future as a civilian."
Now Kathy and Sam read Ron's letter.
"Please understand this is not an easy letter to write," it began. "I feel so inadequate and humbled before the loss of your beloved son. How can I fully express my gratitude to a family who, in their sorrow and grief, chose so unselfishly to give to me the gift of life? . . .
"In every moment and every turn of my life now, I feel it is a privilege to be able to love and serve others. . . . Your son is always with me. I want you to know, on behalf of myself and my family, that you and your son are very much loved."
The Gardes were glad that the man with Andrew's heart was, like them, a parent who put his children at the center of his life. They rejoiced to know that Ron was doing well, that Andrew's heart had saved a life.
It took weeks for Kathy to write back. She wanted to tell Ron about Andrew, to capture her son on paper, but no words seemed to do him justice. She ripped up several drafts before finally sending a reply in late March. "Thank you so much for your beautiful letter," it began. "We are so grateful for the courage it took you to write it."
Kathy enclosed a picture of Andrew–the lacrosse photo–and a copy of A Christmas Box, a bestseller about a young family that loses a child. She also agreed to meet Ron. "Until that time," she wrote, "please know how gratifying it is for us to know that you are well. We know for sure that you are a man of good heart."
"LET ME FEEL MY SON'S HEART BEAT"
Kathy Garde and Ron Green met on April 6, 1996, the Saturday before Easter. WRTC hosted the get-together of the Garde and Green families, joined by Mike and Darlene Rowe, in a window-lined conference room at its headquarters in Falls Church.
Contact between the families of organ donors and transplant survivors was once taboo. Nothing good could come of it, physicians warned: The families might demand something–maybe money. Or they might want the recipient to fill the void left by their loved one's death, expecting him or her to take a chair at Christmas dinner or other special events. Recipients, on the other hand, might be overwhelmed with guilt to see a family shattered by the tragedy that benefited them.
WRTC had arranged its first meeting of recipient and donor families only two years earlier. Both parties had sought the meeting, and the organization, which was creating a new donor-family advocacy program, yielded to their wishes. By the time of the Garde-Green-Rowe gathering, there had been a few meetings, but officials were still nervous. This would be the first time they had brought together a donor family and two recipients.
The Gardes arrived first–all except Jennifer, who was touring on the West Coast with a children's theater–and were taken to the conference room. When the Green family and the Rowes arrived, Mike and Ron stood in the room's doorway. Finally, Ron pushed Mike into the room. Ron followed, then Beverly and Darlene, Christina and Shannon.
Kathy Garde walked up to Mike and hugged him. "You have Andrew's kidney," she said. She touched his right side, remembering that Andrew's right kidney had been transplanted. But Mike had a surprise for her: The surgeons had put Andrew's kidney in the front of Mike's abdomen, leaving the bad organ, which still partly functioned, in his body. Hearing this, everyone laughed.
Then Kathy turned to Ron, who was standing behind Mike. "And you must be Ron," she said. Taking his wrist, she felt for his pulse. Then she said, "Let me feel my son's heart beat." She put her head on his chest and let it rest there.
For the next five hours, the families talked and laughed and cried. The Gardes brought out family photo albums. There was Sam holding the newborn Andrew at the hospital; Andrew astride a brown-and-white pony named Little Squaw on vacation in Vermont; Andrew and his friends in Ridgewood decked out for an eighth-grade dance in coat, tie, shorts, and high tops.
Ron talked about his illness, about the night he was awakened for surgery, and about his recovery.
The next day, Easter Sunday, was Ron's 55th birthday. Christina and Shannon gave him a gold pocket watch, a symbol of the preciousness of time. Inscribed on the front were two interlocking hearts, with the initials AJG inscribed within one and RLG within the other. The back of the watch carried the inscription: "Two hearts beat as one." Inside was a photograph of Andrew.
THE MOST AMAZING GIFT
Mike Rowe retired a few years ago and moved with Darlene to a small town in North Carolina. On a mantel in his den, he keeps a photo of Andrew. "He's never far from my mind," Mike says.
The Greens and the Gardes have become close friends. Ron and Kathy talk on the phone. Not long ago he told her about taking a roller-coaster ride. "I bet your heart had fun," Kathy joked.
When Christina Green married recently, Kathy sent a heart-shaped crystal votive-candle holder as a wedding present. At the reception after the wedding, Christina and Ron danced to the Frank Sinatra song "Young at Heart."
"I felt so blessed to be in Daddy's arms," Christina wrote the Gardes later. "Thank you for the most amazing wedding gift of all–my father."
Not long after they met, Ron and Kathy began doing volunteer work together for WRTC, speaking about their experience to churches, schools, and professional groups.
"That closes the circle," Ron explains. "It brings together the picture of how we are all connected and how we can, even in our deaths, be of service to our fellow human beings."
Thanks to his years on stage and in public affairs, Ron is at ease before a crowd and spins a good tale. Though Kathy dreads such talks and leaves each one emotionally spent, she radiates warmth and speaks eloquently about Andrew, his sense of humor, his goodness.
People who hear the story often cry; many are moved to add the organ-donor designation to their drivers' licenses. One woman at Ron's church was so touched that she became the first person to donate a kidney through WRTC's Living Donor Registry, a program–the first of its kind–in which individuals volunteer and are matched with nonrelatives to give a kidney while still alive.
When he speaks to audiences, Ron often closes his talk by tapping his chest. "Andrew Justin Garde is very much alive today," he says. "And he is very, very much loved." *
HOW–AND WHY–TO BE AN ORGAN DONOR
Organ transplants, once doctor-as-god procedures, are now routine. Nearly a half century after the first successful transplant–Boston surgeon Joseph Murray plucked a healthy kidney from one man and gave it to the man's twin brother–surgeons last year performed nearly 23,000 transplants of kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, and other organs. Washington-area hospitals performed 222 transplants last year. Over the years, new technologies and antirejection medicines have shaved risks from what was once a dicey procedure. Today the three-year survival rate for heart-transplant patients is better than 75 percent.
Still, a problem undercuts the life-saving potential of transplants: Demand for organs is growing, but supply remains flat. Nationwide, 77,000 people are waiting for transplants–twice as many as in 1993. Yet the number of organs available for transplant has changed little. Organ-donation groups say that many people are scared to donate their organs or those of a loved one. Some believe that if they agree to donate, doctors or emergency-room staff won't do everything possible to save their lives. Others think–often wrongly–that their religion does not support organ donation.
The Washington Regional Transplant Consortium, the organization that handles organ procurement in this area, offers information about organ donation, including national and local statistics, a fact sheet aimed at debunking myths, and a summary of the views of common religions on organ and tissue donation. Visit the group's Web site at beadonor.org, or call 866-232-3666.
According to WRTC, you can commit to becoming a donor by signing a donor card (available from WRTC) or by indicating your intent on your driver's license. These are legally binding documents; officials emphasize that you should talk over the decision with loved ones. Neither document notes whether you wish to donate tissue as well as organs, and neither indicates whether you're willing to donate organs for therapy or research–decisions that family members will have to make.