An Emotional Reunion With My Donor’s Family

After my social media post went viral, I finally found my lung donor's family. The emotional meeting with them brought a confusing mix of happiness, grief, gratitude, and survivor's guilt. I received lungs because my donor was killed in a shooting.

| 6 min read
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Fanny Vlahos
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Ok, so how do you thank someone for saving your life? A letter? A handshake? A tear-soaked hug? How about if that someone had to pass away in order for you to live? Who do you thank then? How?  

I started writing this blog outlining the logistics -- when I wrote a letter to my donor's family, when I received their response, how and with whom I first made contact, etc. But, then, I paused and deleted it all. Here's the gist: I met my donor's sister, brother, nephew, nieces, and son just 24 hours after a social media post I made went viral.

I'll set the scene: I'm waiting in the parking lot of the office building where we're set to meet them with my husband, our cousin, and my son. I made the decision to NOT wear any mascara (right call, by the way). I see the cameraman and the news crew park and file into the building. (I had been connected to a WGN news anchor through a friend, and she immediately picked up the story.) 

"Ok, Fanny, they're here,” said the assistant from the nonprofit donor organization, Gift of Hope. “Follow me to the conference room."

I walked down a narrow hallway, holding my own hands, with a million thoughts running through my mind but unable to make sense of any of them. My husband and son were right behind me and our cousin followed all three of us, recording the whole thing. I opened the door and saw five people sitting around a conference table and two others standing at the front of the room. 

I immediately knew who I had spoken to on the phone. His sister was standing at the front of the room, and his brother was right beside her. His sister and I grabbed a hold of each other and started sobbing. I can't remember the last time I had hugged someone so tight. His sister and I hugged for at least two minutes. Imagine that … count to 120 while holding onto someone so tight that you can feel their chest heaving as they sob. 

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We had a stethoscope ready, and both his sister and his brother listened to their brother's lungs. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Over and over. I was sobbing so maybe it wasn't as clear as it could have been, but his sister was overcome with emotion. His brother started speaking to him: "I love you big bro. I miss you so much." I turned and embraced them both, not knowing how to console them after they had just heard their brother's lungs breathe life into someone else.  

Here was the most difficult part for me: Do I say, "I'm so sorry for your loss," or "Thank you," or "I don't know what to say," or … something else?

It was the most emotionally complicated time of my life. Sure, I had been through extremely emotional times in my life: giving birth to my son (soaring pride and exaltation), being wheeled into transplant surgery (extreme fear, anticipation), heading to the hospital after a complication (fear, anger, sadness), and awakening with new lungs (happiness, gratitude). But this time, it was everything rolled into one: I was so extremely sad for them. They had lost their brother, father, son, uncle, and now they're staring at the woman who was living because of him. I was so happy to be able to give them a sense of peace and comfort. At the same time, I was filled with gratitude, yet genuinely unable to express it accurately to them. Sad, happy, excited, nervous, relieved, sorrowful, and to top it all off … guilty.

Guilty. Call it survivor's guilt or call it unnecessary, but I felt it. Why was I the lucky one that got to live, but he had to have his life cut short at the age of 27 for that to happen? Why me? Maybe he would've made a much bigger impact in the world than I ever could. I still think about those things (probably too often), but ultimately, I bring myself back around to the feeling of gratitude and realize that I can't waste my life on philosophical and ethereal concepts that don't solve anything.

I will never know the answer to those questions, and I must be content with my circumstances. I have been very close to death's door too many times, so for me, I'd say I'm pretty damn happy. And, I have one specific family to thank for the opportunity to experience true happiness again.

Relationships and people are fickle -- rarely do people really feel what it's like to affect the lives of others. How many people can really say that they know what it feels like to be eternally grateful for someone?

I wanted to let his loved ones know that there is another family that will forever value and treasure the difficult decision they all came to terms with making.

My donor is my hero. He will forever be my angel. And even though my gratitude can never be fully communicated, I hope that his sister, brothers, nephews, nieces, sons, and especially his mother (who had to make the final call) know just how much he affected my life and how I will try to honor that gift the best I can.

My son has his mother today because of that decision. There's no way to thank them for the time they've given me to make memories and be my son's mother. Time doesn't stand still for anyone. So, when someone actually gifts you more time … well, I just don't think there is any way to fully thank them. If there is, I haven't figured it out yet.

On May 29, I celebrated my 7-year transplant-iversary. Here's my final plea: Organ donation matters. Register to be a donor. It saves lives, and I'm living proof of it. Please, just register.

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Lung Transplantation
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Fanny Vlahos underwent a double lung transplant in May 2009. She holds degrees in English language and literature and American and Canadian law.

Fanny has recently dedicated her time and efforts to inspiring others through her blog, through which she encourages people to embrace their authentic selves and promote organ donation. She is committed to affecting change in health care policy.

Born in Canada to Greek immigrant parents, Fanny now lives in the Chicago area with her spouse of nine years and her son, who is truly the love of her life.

Follow Fanny on Facebook, and on Twitter.

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