When her only son died last summer, Jill Stephenson easily could have withdrawn in grief. Instead, she focused on how her son -- Cpl. Benjamin Kopp, a 21-year-old Army Ranger who was shot during a battle in Afghanistan -- would have wanted to keep helping people. She carried out his wish to donate his organs.
Kopp's heart, pancreas, corneas, skin, tissue and bone went to various recipients throughout the country. But his kidneys and liver were donated to three people in the Washington area. The Washington Post shared Kopp's story Aug. 8, the day after he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Four months later, Stephenson, 42, of Rosemount, Minn., returned to Washington to meet the "two kidneys and a liver," as she calls the recipients.
"I feel so lucky that I was able to do that ... because I know a lot of families never get that opportunity," Stephenson said. "And I've been blessed with the knowledge of who every one of these recipients are."
After his successful liver transplant July 20, Curtis Brantley, 32, a father of three who lives in Fairmont Heights, knew only that his donor was a young man from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But Brantley, born with a liver disease, saw the Aug. 8 newspaper story and knew for sure he had identified the man who had helped prolong his life. Brantley brought that paper with him when he met Stephenson on Dec. 13 in the Annandale office of the Washington Regional Transplant Community, the nonprofit organ procurement organization for the Washington region.
"One of the amazing things about it is that she said that I remind her of her son," Brantley said. "And I told her, 'From this point on, you're part of my family now.'"
Stephenson said her son's decision to become a donor was influenced by stories he'd heard about her younger brother, J.T., whose organs were donated after he died at age 11. "It made us feel like J.T. was living beyond death," recalled Stephenson, who was 15 when he died.
Now, she said, she feels that way about her son: "Knowing that your loved one's life is giving these people new life ... it helps so much."