Mallaki receives the gift of life and a new family

Ben, Karen and Mallaki Hayes

Ben and Karen Hayes knew no one could care for the foster boy like they could

Mallaki Hayes was adopted after a liver transplantA 7-year-old boy in the foster care system was recovering from a life-saving liver transplant when two strangers walked into his room at University of Michigan Health, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.

“Are you my new family?” he asked.

Ben and Karen Hayes promised to take Mallaki home and give him the care and life he deserved as a foster child. One year later, they made him their son.

It seemed they were meant to be together: Ben’s life was saved 19 years earlier with the gift of lungs.

Ben and Mallaki, now 11, share an experience and a gratitude that bonds them. Generous organ donors saved both their lives. Ben is emotional when he talks about it. “We’re very, very grateful for what we have.”

Like father, like son

Ben and Karen knew from Ben’s transplant experience that Mallaki would need critical follow-up care including daily anti-rejection medication, frequent hospital visits and painstaking hygiene, all things that are difficult for a kid.

Their story began when Ben and Karen, licensed foster care parents at the time, learned about a little boy who had a transplant and needed a family.

They talked about it and decided to care for the medically fragile boy.

“Ben said, ‘Are you going to call about him for us? Nobody can take care of him better than we can.’”

Karen called the next day and the case worker burst into tears.

“She said, ‘I didn’t think we’d find a home for him.’ I said, ‘Well, you just did.’”

Mallaki left the hospital to live in northern Michigan with Ben, Karen and his new big brother Sherman.

New lungs and new life

The Hayes family - Ben, Karen and their two adopted sonsBen and Karen were trying to start a family back in 2004 when Ben, a young airline mechanic, was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. The autoimmune disease aggressively attacked his lungs, leaving him on full oxygen and gasping for every breath.

Ben nearly died.

With only hours to spare, physicians at Cleveland Clinic let Ben know his life would be saved by a generous donor.

He received his gift from a young woman named Barbara, who died of a stroke.

Overjoyed at the second chance, Ben and Karen adopted a young son, Sherman, now 17. “I wanted to experience things in life with children,” Ben said. “Leave a legacy.”

There’s an atmosphere of gratitude at the Hayes home that Mallaki understands, Karen said.

“We tell Mallaki, ‘You are living both for yourself and for the person who gave of themselves to live on in you — so you could have a second chance,’” Karen said.

Two gifts make a family

Ben, Mallaki and Karen Hayes visited the Gift of Life officeThe Hayes are close with the family of Ben’s donor, Barbara.

“Barbara eats dinner with us,” Karen said. “We have the nameplate from her desk on our table.” The families get together every year.

“Mallaki wants to meet his donor family, too, so he can thank them,” Karen said. “He’s very grateful. He’s an 11-year-old boy living his best life right now.”

“Adopting kids from foster care is a challenge — an up-and-down roller coaster,” Ben said. He’s grateful to be here for the ride.

He teaches his sons how to hunt and fish, and the value of hard work. On a recent walk in the woods with Mallaki they spied a bobcat — a relatively rare sighting — and it reminded Ben that life is precious.

Karen knows it too: “Barbara’s gift saved Ben’s life, but it also made me a mom,” Karen said. “That’s what I wanted more than anything in life and two organ donors made that possible for both Ben and me.”

“You are living both for yourself and for the person who gave of themselves to live on in you.”
— Karen Hayes

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