One family's sacrifice becomes a gift
by Sean Keeler | Des Moines Register
This one, bless her, is for that sweet old lady from Kentucky.
The kind soul who saw John Wright standing in front of that bank of elevators, staring into space, inside that Pittsburgh hotel two years ago. The lovely woman who stopped when she saw Wright, pale and frozen, on the fifth floor.
“Are you OK?” she asked him.
“I’m supposed to go upstairs and meet my donor family,” Wright replied. “And I’m thinking about hitting the ‘Down’ button and walking out of the hotel.”
She smiled. Then the stranger grabbed him with one hand and pushed the ‘Up’ button with the other.
“You’ll be fine,” she told him.
And he was. Eventually.
“To be honest, I was freaking out a little bit,” Wright, the Urbandale triathlete and chairman of Triathlons for Transplants, says now. “It’s very hard to look the person that saved your life in the eye and tell them, ‘Thank you.’ ”
This one is for Vanessa, too. Wright’s running in next Sunday’s IMT Des Moines Half-Marathon — a 13.1-mile course — in her memory. See, Oct. 17, 2006, was the day Vanessa Thomas entered his life. And his soul.
“The first time I did a triathlon, I did it just to prove I could, just to prove it to myself, to my mom, and to everybody else,” John explains. “And then I met Vanessa’s family, and it really brought to me the fact that somebody made a sacrifice. That somebody had thought about other people and given me a gift.”
The gift was born, as they sometimes are, out of tragedy. In the fall of 2006, John’s kidneys and pancreas were giving out. A former Marine, he’d been battling diabetes since he was 20, when a helicopter jump gone wrong had left him in a coma. Wright had been on the kidney transplant roll for three years, hooked to a dialysis machine, when a match was finally found.
Vanessa Thomas was a free spirit, an unabashed optimist, a kid blessed with a 10-megawatt grin and the ability to see the silver lining in any cloud tossed her way.
“Just an outgoing, bubbly person,” Vanessa’s aunt, Tracy Thomas, recalls. “She was really a fun-loving kid (who) could make fun out of nothing.”
She made friends quickly and easily. Four years ago this month, Vanessa was riding to Centerville High School’s homecoming dance with a few of them when the car they were in collided with a truck.
The 16-year-old was life-flighted to Des Moines, but the doctors declared her brain-dead the next day. Only the story didn’t end there: On her first driver’s license, she’d agreed to become an organ donor, in part because of her father Scott’s battle with cancer.
“He was donating his body to the University of Iowa so they could do research (after his death),” explains Vicki Wendland, Vanessa’s mom. “And she always wanted to do what she could to help somebody else. She always wanted to help the underdog.”
She wound up helping six. Of those six, four donor recipients — including John, who received one of her kidneys and her pancreas — have survived. Four underdogs. Saved.
Over the past few years, Vicki and Tracy have met them all. And while it hasn’t brought Vanessa back, it’s provided the family with some comfort, some semblance of closure.
“It’s like she’s with us in a sense, like she’s still with these people and she’s still walking around,” Tracy says. “It’s not her, it’s not the same person, but it kind of helps us ease the pain, I guess.”
Wright’s helped, too. While competing for Team Iowa at the U.S. Transplant Games two summers ago, he took the plunge, went upstairs, and agreed to meet Vicki and Tracy at that Pittsburgh hotel. Within minutes, there wasn’t a dry eye in the suite.
“I asked a lot of questions about Vanessa; they asked a lot of questions about me,” John says. Then he chuckles. “It was very powerful. The one thing I remember most is, I went into those games with (my) coach’s plan as to how to win every event I was in. And once I met Vicki and Tracy, that plan went right out the window.”
Vicki and Tracy became a part of John’s extended family. And vice versa. John launched a 5K run/walk at Centerville last May in her honor. With Vanessa as his spiritual guide, Wright also founded Triathlons for Transplants, a non-profit organization that promotes organ donation education. More than 108,000 people in the United States are awaiting an organ transplant, he says, and 18 people per day pass away while waiting to receive a donation.
“(There are) 20,000 organs a year that could be donated,” Wright says. “And we throw them away.”
He tells Vanessa’s story often, usually to driver’s education classes around the area. Her name lives on. So does her gift.
“I think (Vanessa) would just be amazed by him,” Vicki says of Wright. “If she weren’t inside of him, she’d be right beside him.”
She’ll be there next Sunday, too. Smiling with every step.