Monday, July 18, 2011
Organ donation leads to friendship between families
Springfield, Illinois - Christine Smith's son, the late Spc. Jack Gallaher, died in a shooting accident four years ago while serving in the Army at Fort Lewis, Wash. But for her, he lives on in Steve Charest.
Smith, a Springfield resident, didn't get to talk to her son before he died. Jack had never talked about whether he wanted to donate his organs, and Smith hadn't thought about it much before then, either.
"That was something I decided. That just popped into my head. Obviously, it was a good idea," she said. "I knew going up there that he wasn't going to survive."
The decision to donate Gallaher's two kidneys and liver has resulted in a long-standing friendship with Charest, 50, and his wife, Kathy, 49, of Orting, Wash. -- a relationship Kathy Charest says is typical of donors and recipients. The Charests visited Christine Smith and her family for Jack Gallaher's 28th birthday, which they still celebrate, at a party over the weekend.
"It's an amazing feeling, just to know that part of him lives in somebody else," Smith said.
‘My soldier, my hero'
The dates around her son's death in an accident off-base in September 2007 pop right out when Smith is asked about that time.
"That was on Sept. 6," said Smith, who has four other children. "I got up there on the seventh and turned the external life support off on the 10th.
"It's pretty sketchy. The detectives at the police department ..." she says, trailing off as she tries to describe the circumstances. "Anyway, evidently he and a friend were at this apartment off-post and they were looking at each other's guns or had each other's guns or something, and from what I gather, the gun went off and Jack was shot."
Smith speaks in clipped sentences about Jack. She says he always wanted to be in the Army, but isn't sure why or what he liked about it. He was an outdoorsman who particularly enjoyed fishing and motorcycles.
"When he was little, it was playing Army guys," Smith says. "I have a nephew that's just 10 months younger than Jack, so they were like brothers, and that's all they did."
He's omnipresent in her life. Smith is a rural letter carrier, and the license plate on the vehicle she uses for work simply says, "Jack" and has a sticker that reads, "Jack my son my soldier my hero." The license plate on a red van in the family's driveway reads, "Jacks Ma."
Three years of dialysis
Steve Charest's life wasn't particularly pleasant before he received one of Gallaher's kidneys. He was the recipient of a heart transplant after going into cardiac arrest, and his daughter, Jamie, helped save him by performing CPR.
But complications during the heart transplant operation resulted in Steve having no kidney function, Kathy Charest said, meaning he was on dialysis for three years, awaiting a transplant. Meanwhile, his body was rejecting the heart, although doctors eventually stabilized the situation.
"It was just a complete battle, believe me," Steve said. "You have to go at least three days a week depending on how much you weigh and what your situation is. I was lucky to get a Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Some people have to go Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, which messes up your weekend.
"Everybody in there doesn't look real healthy," he said. "It's a sad place."
While on kidney dialysis, a person faces restricted travel and the constant risk of a serious infection.
"I had a line -- came out of the upper chest and went straight into the heart. You have to keep it clean and have to keep it dry," Steve said. "I was always constantly getting infections with it."
The call notifying the Charests that there was a kidney that might match Steve came late on Sept. 10, 2007, Kathy said. Then they waited for the call to go to the hospital after tests determined there was a good chance Steve's body would not reject the kidney.
"It was actually kind of spooky because it was on 9/11 that he got the kidney," recalled Kathy, noting that she "vigorously was trying to can tomatoes" when the call came. "So I stayed up. I couldn't sleep."
Kathy took Steve to the hospital at about 4 a.m., expecting the surgery to be long and complicated because of damage to Steve's renal arteries.
It was successful.
"Steve's been fabulous with it, no rejection issues," Kathy said. "He's had it now, come September, it will be four years."
Donors and recipients who want to meet go through an organization called the Living Legacy Foundation. Letters are sent anonymously, and each side considers whether they want to meet. Christine Smith sent the Charests a letter and she traveled to Washington three or four months after the transplant to meet them.
"I wrote a letter, just a very plain - no last names, no addresses - and I sent it to the organ donation center in Washington. And then they forward it to these people," Smith said. "And you do that a couple times, and then I ask them to find out if any of these people would like to know more."
Smith has also met with a woman who received her son's other kidney and received a letter from the woman who received Gallaher's liver.
How to say thanks?
The Charests were nervous when they first met Smith at a Starbucks.
"It was very emotional, very fulfilling, but also kind of left you - the loss that they suffered is so immense," Kathy said. "You just look at what that does for somebody that's barely getting by. I'm sure for her, she must feel some closure, some peace, knowing that her son saved Steve's life. ... I think our relationship with Christine is rewarding, and I think everybody feels that way."
"The first time we met, I was so nervous, boy, believe me," Steve said. "I had my hair cut. I was all cleaned up. You just don't know what to say. You don't know how to say thank you. You can't ever say thank you enough.
"They didn't know me. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me other than my heart transplant and stuff. You have a whole second chance. You can travel. You can get in the water. You can enjoy your life. I still live day to day on medications, but my God, I'm still alive and I'm here to say something about it."
This year's birthday party, as at the others since Jack's death, saw Smith and her family and friends release a bundle of balloons bearing tags that say they are in memory of Spc. Jack Gallaher on his birthday, and if the balloons are found, to please call Smith. Last year, an Ohio man found a balloon 480 miles from Springfield while standing in his garden and called Smith.
"Every year I have a birthday party for all my kids," Smith said. "So we just keep going."