John Edmond barely gave it a thought as a woman from Gift of Life Michigan entered his young daughter’s room in the pediatric Intensive Care Unit. He knew his 7-year-old would not survive her accidental gunshot wound. And he knew exactly what Amaia — a helper at heart — would want to do next.
“In the African American community, organ donation isn’t something we do,” John said. “That never crossed my mind. I was solely thinking about her and how that would make her happy.
“I feel it was the greatest decision I could have made in my life.” Amaia was shot inside a Lansing home in July 2010. She was simply in the wrong place as a gunman entered the house that day intending to harm someone else.
“I got the call, and that was the moment that changed my life forever,” John said. “Why? Why now? Why my child?”
Julie Pfeiffer was the donation coordinator who talked with John at Sparrow Hospital that day. It was more than 13 years and hundreds of cases ago: “But I remember Amaia’s little sweet face,” Julie said. “She was beautiful and perfect.”
She also remembers that John was able to see through his sorrow and the chaos to move forward with donation for his daughter.
“It caught me off guard a little,” said Julie, now in Colorado working in transplantation. “John wanted to do the right thing for Amaia and for other people on what was probably the worst day of his life.”
Waiting to live
Ninety miles west in Holland, Mike Lopez was in liver failure from hepatitis C that raged undetected for 20 years. He weighed just 120 pounds, was getting weaker by the day, and he desperately needed a liver transplant. His mind rarely took a break from one thought: “How much time do I have left?”
Mike and his wife, Shari, knew his life depended on the help of a stranger.
“He had a couple of months left,” Shari said. “He’d lost all of his muscle mass, and I was terrified.”
The phone rang at 9 a.m. on an otherwise average Saturday morning for Mike and Shari.
“The caller ID popped up, and it was Henry Ford Hospital. Wow. It was emotional,” Mike said. “I was going to get a transplant and also somebody had just lost a family member. I was happy and sad at the same time.”
They grabbed their pre-packed suitcases and drove three hours from the shores of Lake Michigan to Detroit, where transplant surgeons gave Amaia’s liver to Mike.
He woke up with 50 staples across his stomach and the knowledge that his warm hands meant his health and his life were back.
Amaia saved Mike, two other adults and two children who were waiting to live just as she was leaving the world.
Finding each other
Not long after Mike recovered and felt strong again, he felt a tug to know more about his donor and that person’s family. He wrote a note on a card provided by Gift of Life as part of the organization’s services for families.
“I just wanted to express my gratitude for the gift I received. It said thank you and that I was so sorry for their loss,” Mike said. “I wanted them to write me back.”
They did. It was the start of a back-and-forth that eventually worked its way to phone conversations, then a meeting with their families present.
Two groups walked toward one another and, from a distance, both men recognized one another merely by their expressions and then voices.
“He started walking toward me, and we both had tears in our eyes,” Mike said.
John said he knew Mike by his overwhelming look of gratitude.
“I said, ‘Mike?’ We hugged. I felt his heartbeat and there was life there,” John said. “Everybody was crying as people watched. That moment was the beginning of what was to come.”
Making a difference together
What was to come was a new family born out of death and life and that gratitude John saw in Mike’s eyes.
The men have since volunteered together dozens of times to tell their stories in hopes that they might motivate others to register as organ and tissue donors. They also spend time together just as friends, visiting each other’s churches and communities.
John’s life has changed. Amaia remains a large part of it, but in a different way. He volunteers for Gift of Life to uphold a vow he made to her that she will not be forgotten. Amaia’s legacy lives through John, who talks about her with swells of pride and joy jumbled with his sorrow.
John said when he began exchanging letters with Mike, he was merely hoping for acknowledgment of Amaia’s gift.
“But what we have is bigger. We share our stories and we have a great brotherly love and bond,” John said. “I love him. And this is an impact that I didn’t realize could happen.”
Mike is healthy, happy and he honors Amaia’s gift every day.
“I take life in and try to find something beautiful every single day,” he said. “And I tell my story for Amaia.”