Lifesavers: Stories of Organ Donation
A Race for Life
When April Gross, 40, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a toddler, doctors told her parents she would be unlikely to live past puberty. Back then the prognosis for the hereditary disease, which causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive tract, was poor. To loosen those secretions, her parents pounded on her chest and made sure she was physically active. Their efforts paid off: Gross had a relatively healthy childhood in Strawberry Point, Iowa. "I was one of the lucky ones," she says.
As an adult Gross developed CF-related diabetes and was hospitalized often for pneumonia. But she managed to attend college, work full-time, and, in 2002, get married. Then, in 2008, her luck seemed to run out. Her lung function was just 32 percent and she felt sicker than she'd ever been.
By Thanksgiving Gross needed an oxygen tank around the clock, but she was ineligible for a bilateral lung transplant until her lung function dropped below 30 percent. A little more than a month later it was at 18 percent and her name was added to the transplant list. She prepared herself for a long wait -- up to a year, doctors warned -- but on March 19, 2009, her phone rang as she was putting away groceries. A pair of lungs had just become available for immediate transplantation. "I was happy, of course," she says, "but I couldn't help feeling sad and guilty, too, knowing that someone died to give me this chance."
That someone was Lisa Darling, 14, a spirited straight-A student and standout athlete from Humboldt, Iowa, who'd collapsed on her way home from school when an aneurism in her brain ruptured. As doctors at a trauma center in Des Moines pronounced his daughter brain-dead, Greg Darling, a Humboldt school community superintendent and former science teacher, remembered a conversation he'd had with Lisa the day she'd gotten her learner's permit. "They'll take your picture and ask you if you want to be an organ donor..." he'd begun.
"Yeah, definitely -- it helps other people!" she'd said before he could finish his sentence.
Gross's surgery was a resounding success. Flush with good health for the first time in her life, she resolved to run in the 2010 Dam to Dam, the country's largest 20K race. During months of training she often thought of her donor and wanted to write the family but was unsure what to say. (Although privacy laws protect donors' anonymity, hospitals and coordinating agencies can forward letters.) Then one day in the fall of 2009, she says, "I just knew exactly what to write." The date of her letter? October 25, what would have been Lisa's 15th birthday.
"We saw it as a sign," says Darling, who answered the letter with his wife, Sandi. When they heard that Gross would run in a T-shirt that had Lisa's photo on it, Darling decided to enter the race, too. With some 7,000 runners registered, he and Gross agreed they'd meet up at the finish line. But a half mile into the race, Darling looked to his side and saw April, wearing a T-shirt like his, sporting Lisa's smiling face. "It was special," Darling says, his voice choked with emotion, "because I got to run with two people that day -- April and my daughter."