By Colleen Jenkins, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — Dorothy Nicoletti walked out of Tampa General Hospital on a fall evening in 2009, devastated.
Louie Olivarez arrived at the same hospital hours later, anxious.
One had witnessed death. The other needed help.
The strangers did not yet realize that their lives were already connected.
• • •
Dorothy's son Erik had wanted his college experience to include warm weather and a good writing program. His search brought him from New York's lower Hudson Valley to Florida, where he enrolled at the University of Tampa.
Erik loved the school. He lived on the honors floor and made friends easily. His passion for writing evolved into an interest in film.
He remained in close contact with his family back home.
"We talked practically every day," said Dorothy, 55.
But on Nov. 21, 2009, someone else called with terrible news.
Erik, 20, had been walking near campus when a car on Kennedy Boulevard struck him and a young woman. Both had critical injuries.
• • •
The night of Nov. 22, Louie and his partner, Stan Lasater, watched the 11 o'clock news before going to bed in their Seminole Heights home.
A story they were following had taken a tragic turn. A handsome University of Tampa film student had been declared brain dead after a hit-and-run crash.
"Oh, that's so sad," Stan said.
In that moment, Louie wasn't thinking of his own crisis. Just three days before, the 44-year-old office worker at a Tampa law firm had been put on the waiting list for organ transplants.
He needed a new kidney and pancreas, the result of the Type 1 diabetes he had battled since his 20s. He also required a new liver because of fast-growing cancerous tumors.
He had been warned that organs might not be available for years.
And so the call that he and Stan received at 2:28 a.m. on Nov. 23 stunned them.
"You guys need to get to the hospital," the transplant coordinator said. "There's been an accident. We've got Louie's organs."
Officially, Louie knew only that the organs came from a 20-year-old man. Faced with two major surgeries over two days, he didn't have time to dwell on details.
In the waiting room, Stan unofficially pieced together that Erik Nicoletti was the likely source. The realization made him weep.
"Now there was a face with everything," he said.
• • •
Back in New York, Dorothy hadn't been able to put faces on any of the people who received her son's organs.
Then, six months after Erik's death, she returned from a Memorial Day weekend vacation to a voice mail box full of incoherent, excited messages. The caller was Erik's college girlfriend.
Dorothy called back and heard this: The girlfriend had met one of the transplant patients.
His name was Louie.
Hunches and coincidence brought Louie and the girlfriend together.
Louie had traveled to Key West to see family. His relatives there all knew about the triple transplant, including his niece's husband. The husband also knew that a co-worker's daughter lost a boyfriend in a Tampa crash. The dates seemed right. He broached the subject carefully with Louie and arranged for him to meet Erik's girlfriend.
She told Erik's mother that Louie was a really nice guy.
Up to that point, Dorothy knew only that Erik's heart went to a man in his 50s, and his skin and corneas and another kidney were spread among other strangers.
That was how transplants worked. Privacy laws insulated people. Sometimes, with help, they got together, but there were formalities.
Dorothy had received some anonymous letters of thanks, but nothing more.
Now she had a name.
• • •
Just received a message from my organ donor's mother ... how I waited for this moment... I wrote back to her with tears in my eyes.
— Louie Olivarez, Facebook, June 8, 2010
• • •
Early on, Louie had held off contacting Erik's family through formal channels to give them space to mourn. When Dorothy reached out with a Facebook message, he was eager to learn about Erik.
"He's within me," Louie said.
The new relationship brought with it a delicate mix of emotions. Louie felt enormous gratitude toward Dorothy, who had given doctors permission to use Erik's organs. But as she spoke of her son, Louie grappled with guilt and sadness. During their first phone conversation, he became so overwhelmed that Stan had to finish the call for him.
As the chats continued, the connection deepened. The couple traded messages and phone calls with Dorothy multiple times a week, even several times a day.
In November, one year after losing Erik, Dorothy returned to Tampa for an organ donor remembrance ceremony.
She asked Louie and Stan to join her.
During the memorial, she held Louie's hand tight. Afterward, they shared a long meal, and she gave him a green shirt that had been among her son's favorites.
"He's always going to be with you," she told him.
• • •
A few weeks later, Louie and Stan organized a roadside memorial to mark the one-year anniversary of Erik's death.
Erik's friends took turns sharing what he meant to them. Louie spoke last, reading remarks he prepared beforehand because he knew he would cry. He shared what he had learned of Erik. And he called him a "savior."
"Every day when I wake up," he told the group, "or before the day is over, I have a little silence to myself, and I look up at the sky where he's resting peacefully and I say to him: 'Thank you, Erik.' "
Louie and Stan treated Erik's friends to a sushi dinner — his favorite — and called Dorothy on speaker phone so she could share in the moment.
It was one of the small, but meaningful, ways the men and Dorothy have become part of each other's lives.
Louie, one of 14 children, feels as if he's gained another sister.
"We just clicked," Dorothy said recently. "There really was no, like, feeling each other out or uncomfortable, long pauses. It was just, like, we met and, boom, we were just fast friends."
She finds comfort in Louie's friendly and warm demeanor. He is similar in that way to her son.
"I don't feel like I'm meeting a part of my son," she said. "I do feel strongly that he is living on in other people."
• • •
One matter lingers.
On the night when this all began, a crime happened. The driver who hit Erik did not stay to help. He fled. He later admitted doing so, and next month he will be sentenced in a Tampa courtroom.
Families usually attend these hearings. Some plead for mercy on behalf of the accused. Others come in solidarity with the dead, to show that the victim is not forgotten and to ensure that justice is served.
Dorothy will be there, in town from New York.
So will her husband and their teenage daughter.
Louie, too, with Stan.