Before the meeting, the Ord family were complete strangers. Minutes after, dearest friends.
Understand that I received a kidney and pancreas from their beloved son and brother, the late Kevin Hager, 31, of Harrison City. The transplants cured my type 1 diabetes and my advanced kidney disease, making me a brand new old man at 57.
But my continuing conundrum is how best to thank Kevin's family properly for their gift of life -- how to acknowledge extraordinary people whose gene pool I now share in an oddly modern way.
On Oct. 24, Kevin died unexpectedly, a half-century too soon. Deep in mourning, his family made the decision to donate his organs. On Oct. 25, I underwent the long-awaited kidney-pancreas transplant after 23 months on the transplant list.
Recently Kevin's mother Denise Ord sent me a letter through the Center for Organ Recovery and Education in O'Hara, which mandates no last names or personal details be revealed. I violated every CORE rule with a five-page biographical reply, forcing poor Sharon of CORE to do some heavy editing. In time, everyone waived confidentiality and CORE scheduled my family to meet Kevin's at 12:30 p.m. April. 5.
Bursting with anticipation, I had a tummy full of butterflies and a mind that was a faulty dam unable to hold back a reservoir of tears. And that was even before I met Kevin's family.
We Templetons, including wife Suellen, daughter Georgia and mother Newanna (Noonie), walked into the CORE conference room for a dramatic greeting from Kevin's parents Denise and George Ord, sister Jamie Zierski and her 7-year-old son Brendon, as well as Kevin's brother Rocky Ord and his wife Kim.
Emotions bubbled over. Tears. Hugs. Thank yous.
I told my story. Type 1 diabetes for 45 years with diabetes-induced kidney disease since the mid-1980s, which came close to requiring dialysis. The kidney disease threw my diabetes out of control. I had extreme anemia and repeated bouts of low blood sugar, which left me unconscious a number of times. This included the time Suellen came home to find that I'd been unconscious for eight hours and another time when Georgia found me unconscious after four hours. Both times paramedics didn't think they could revive me.
Which, if anything, confirms that I'm a human cockroach. Such episodes would have killed a lesser insect. But it also proves how fragile one's existence can be prior to a transplant.
I received the late-night call on Oct. 24. Officials at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute said I was first on the kidney-pancreas list for organs from a 31-year-old local man with hydrocephalus, which swells the brain. He died of infection, they said.
When I arrived at UPMC Montefiore the next afternoon, the transplant was a go. After six hours of surgery I awakened with a new pancreas and kidney, and almost six months later I have normal kidney function and blood sugar.
Henke Tan, whose team did the transplant, did fine work. He and my coordinator, Jessica Hughes Kassner, continue guiding me through the process of taking immunosuppressant drugs to avoid organ rejection and infections.
No more insulin injections, after 80,000 of them, and no more blood-glucose testing, after upward of 100,000 of those pin pricks. No more food restrictions nor worries about dialysis or low blood sugar. With Kevin's gracious gift, I now have a chance of living a normal lifespan, which I never thought possible.
But my newfound health must be balanced against the Ord family's grief. It's an uneasy situation that I and my family have recognized with heavy hearts, even before the transplants occurred.
The Ords described Kevin as the joy of their lives. He had beaten greater odds than me. Born on June 7, 1980, he wasn't expected to live a year. Even if he did, the hydrocephalus would be disabling.
But Kevin watched his younger brother Rocky learn to crawl and walk, and was inspired to do the same. He couldn't read or write but he could talk, laugh and enjoy daily life. He had an alluring sense of humor with a penchant for telephones and gadgets.
Kevin became the central figure in the Ord family sitcom that turned into a tragic drama with his death. The family had expected him to live a long life. They still aren't sure whether he died from infection or brain swelling.
Before our meeting, CORE put each family in separate rooms to answer questions and ask if anyone had a change of heart. Having had a change of pancreas and kidney, I was not about to have a change of heart. I was determined to meet those who made my good health possible.
My first impression: The Ords are an All-American family. Still grieving, they were pleased to hear of my progress and to learn that Kevin's organs had been successfully deployed.
It saddened me to learn I was the only one of five recipients of Kevin's organs to agree to meet with them. A 16-year-old boy received his heart, a 77-year-old man his lungs, a 22-year-old woman his liver and a 3-year-old his other kidney. All but the heart went to local residents.
So far Kevin and I have had a good partnership, I told his family, noting that I consider all of us to be blood, or at least tissue, relatives. I am part Ord. In recent emails, I told them about continuing thoughts of them with hopes to keep our conversations rolling.
"We, too, think about you all the time," Denise replied. "I do believe this may be the start of a healing process for me."
What the Ord family proves is how all people share common bonds, sometimes in unexpected ways. Organ donations are ultimate gifts, often given at life's darkest moments. The decision requires courage, compassion and a sense of humanity, and it can help as many as seven strangers in a remarkable -- my mother calls it a "miraculous" -- modern phenomenon.
So Denise and family, I can only thank you. I mourn Kevin while I celebrate his precious family for allowing him to become an integral part of me, both in body and spirit.
It's funny how things turn out. While Kevin's pancreas and kidney thrive inside me, he now lives more fully in my heart.opinion_commentary
David Templeton is a Post-Gazette staff writer (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1578). First Published April 14, 2012 12:00 AM