Reporting from Charlotte, N.C. — Tom Elliott spoke first. For days, he had been debating what to say when he finally met the mother of the man whose death had saved his life.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier online version of this article included a headline that incorrectly attributed a quote to Carolyn Glaspy. It was Matthew Kinney, a family support coordinator for LifeShare of the Carolinas, who said: "They will know he didn't just die, but he left the world a better place by giving someone else a chance at life."
Elliott, 63, had once been tethered to an oxygen tank, too weak to walk to his mailbox, as a result of lung and pulmonary diseases. Now, as he stood stiffly in a hospital conference room this month, Elliott squeezed the hand of Carolyn Glaspy.
"I'm the lung recipient," he said finally.
Glaspy fought back tears. At the same Charlotte hospital 11 months earlier, her son, NFL wide receiver Chris Henry, 26, had been declared brain dead after being thrown from the back of a pickup.
Her decision to donate his organs would forge an irrevocable bond with four families. Now they were finally meeting face to face, an extraordinary rendezvous in the recent history of organ donations. Normally donors are anonymous, but Glaspy longed to meet the recipients whose replenished lives promised redemption for her lost son.
After Elliott came Donna Arnold, 51, a diabetic with failing kidneys who had received Henry's kidney and pancreas.
She hugged Glaspy and said, "I'm Donna. I'm so blessed.... Thanks for giving us all another chance."
James Benton, 61, once left bed-ridden by progressive liver disease, received Henry's liver.
"If it wasn't for Chris," he told Glaspy, "I wouldn't be standing here."
And Brian Polk, 33, a dump truck driver whose faltering kidneys meant he would die without a transplant, received Henry's other kidney. He embraced Glaspy in a long bear hug, his face touching hers.
Glaspy, her voice breaking, said, "If there's anything else I can do…"
"You've done so much," Arnold told her.
On the afternoon of Dec. 16, Henry had been arguing with Loleini Tonga, his fiancee and mother of their three children. Henry jumped into the back of a pickup driven by Tonga. Police, who later ruled the death an accident, said he tumbled from the truck and struck his head. Henry was rushed to Carolinas Medical Center with massive brain trauma.
When Glaspy arrived that night from her home in Cincinnati, Henry was unresponsive. She whispered softly in his ear, "Say something to Mama."
Henry's year-old son patted his father's eyes and cried out, "Wake up, Daddy!"
Henry never regained consciousness. When a doctor told Glaspy that he had not survived, she fainted.
Among the hospital staff who helped revive her was Matthew Kinney, a family support coordinator for LifeShare of the Carolinas, a nonprofit that facilitates organ donations in southwestern North Carolina.
Kinney consoled her and gave her time to "decouple," as he put it — to absorb Henry's death and begin to grieve with assembled family and friends.
When Glaspy seemed ready, Kinney mentioned organ donation.
"Chris was young and healthy," Kinney said. "He can leave a legacy, something his kids can be proud of. They will know he didn't just die, but he left the world a better place by giving someone else a chance at life."
Glaspy discussed it with family members. Then she thought: I've got to talk to Chris. She went back to where he lay, his brain function gone but his body attached to mechanical support systems.
She whispered to Chris that she knew what his answer would have been if he had been able to make a decision.
"Chris was a giver," Glaspy recalled. "If he knew he could help someone, he would have said yes."
Three weeks ago, Glaspy flew back to Charlotte. She knew virtually nothing about the four recipients, but had wanted to meet them almost from the moment she decided on donation. LifeShare told her they wanted to meet her too. In cases where both the organ recipients and the donor family ask to meet, according to LifeShare, the agency will reveal their identities to one another.
This was the first time LifeShare brought together multiple recipient families with a donor family. Nationally, such encounters are extremely rare but not unprecedented, said Joel Newman of the United Network for Organ Sharing.
LifeShare hoped media coverage of Henry's mother meeting organ recipients would promote organ donation and raise awareness, said Debbie Gibbs, an agency spokeswoman.
All four recipients had heard the news about Henry's accident just hours before they received urgent calls to rush to a hospital for possible transplant surgery. Each suspected Henry was the donor, but LifeShare did not confirm it until shortly before they gathered to meet Glaspy.