It came as no surprise to anyone that Christopher Mark Gregory became a registered organ donor as soon as he got a license to drive. He affirmed his commitment to his family one day in late March 2008.
“Our family was on vacation, and one night at dinner the conversation somehow drifted to organ donation,” his father, Eric, said. “Chris said, ‘Of course I’m an organ donor. Why wouldn’t I be? What am I going to do with my organs after I’m gone?’ And then, with a twinkle in his eye that was uniquely Chris, he said, ‘And besides, who wouldn’t want THIS body?’”
That was the Thursday before Easter in 2008.
A few days later, Chris collapsed while hanging out with friends. He was 19 years old, and a freshman at Loyola University New Orleans. He was rushed to Tulane Medical Center and diagnosed with a ruptured brain aneurysm. On the morning of his second day in the Special Intensive Care Unit, the attending neurosurgeon looked his parents in the eyes and said, “Christopher’s condition has worsened overnight. This is death.”
“Just like that,” his dad said. “Chris died through no fault of his own. He never saw it coming and neither did we. In an instant, everything changed. There was now a huge hole in our lives where our son once fit so perfectly.”
Chris believed that the best things in life weren’t things at all, Eric remembers. Money and possessions meant little to him. He valued friendship. He believed in God, in family, in loyalty and in Mount Saint Joe High School. When his grandfather was in home hospice, during Chris’ senior year in high school, Chris would drive out of his way after school to check up on him. For him, there was no greater privilege in life than to serve others.
In the wake of the neurosurgeon’s words to Chris’ family at the hospital, everything seemed hopeless until they were asked to consider donating Chris’ organs, his father said.
“The process of donating a child’s organs is neither simple nor quick,” said Eric, who is writing a book about his family’s experience. “It is something that must be endured if the donor family has any hope of passing on some piece of their loved one’s life to another person. But as soon as we were asked, there was no need for hesitation. The answer had already been made known that night at the dinner table only a week earlier. It was just a matter of affirming Christopher’s own wish.”
The Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA) sent Joe Guillory, an organ recovery coordinator, to the hospital to meet the Gregorys and to coordinate the donation of Chris’ organs.
“Just before saying our goodbyes to Chris, Joe took me off to the side,” Eric said. “He said, ‘There are planes flying all over the country tonight because of your boy.’ Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what it means to hear someone say that about your son at such a moment? The gears of a massive logistical machine had already been set in motion. Even though we were losing our son, lives were being saved.”
Chris’ brothers, his friends, and his parents all gathered around him in the early morning as he received last rites, and then he was gone.
The Gregorys’ mailbox was filled every day with cards and letters from loved ones. The notes from Chris’ friends were especially touching. Then slowly, the cards stopped coming, the doorbell stopped ringing, and people stopped asking. Chris had been gone only 12 weeks when the family got a call from LOPA. A letter had arrived from one of Chris’ organ recipients. Did they want it?
“Did we want it?” Eric asked incredulously. His family had been told not to expect to hear from any of their son’s organ recipients. And if they did, they were warned not to expect too much. The recipients may not want to say much more than “thank you”, they were told. They might want their own privacy respected. They might have their own issues to sort out. But Chris’ parents no longer had their youngest son to hold, and the letter represented the closest physical contact they could have with him since his passing. So the Gregorys waited, unsure of what was coming next.
“We were pretty much staring into the abyss,” with grief, Eric recalled. “We were in this collective free fall, and then we got this letter.”
The salutation and first lines of the letter had been redacted by UNOS because they contained religious references. So it was impossible to read them. But the rest of the letter was sincere:
“I cannot possibly imagine the grief caused by your loss, and certainly there are no words anyone can say or write that could extinguish that pain. Nevertheless, you have shared with me the grandest gift I will ever receive – the gift of life.”
The letter was beautifully written, and it gave the Gregorys a measure of comfort. Still, those first few redacted lines sparked Eric’s curiosity. What did they say?
Eric made several attempts to read them, holding the letter in the sunlight and making other overtures that yielded only frustration. Then nine months later, he was inspired to try something else. He got out a magnifying glass and a flashlight. He discovered that if he manipulated the flashlight at just the right angle, he could see indentations of words come into view.
“The hair on the back of my neck stood up,” he recalled. “Because I knew this was going to work. Then I saw ‘To Gabriel and his family,’ and I started writing things down.”
The opening lines of the letter read:
“To Gabriel and his family: I am the recipient of a gift from your son that is beyond repayment. Since I do not know his real name, I have chosen to refer to him as ‘Gabriel,’ after the archangel known as the Angel of Incarnation and of Consolation.”
Eric fell apart.
The Gregorys are devout Catholics. Eric and Grace sent all three of their sons to Catholic high schools, and Chris was attending Loyola University New Orleans, a Jesuit school. It was as though the letter’s writer intimately knew the Gregorys. He had reached across time and space and spoken directly to the grieving hearts of Chris’ family.
The letter’s author was Jorge Bacardi, a member of the Bacardi family of rum producers. He was very near death when he received Chris’ lungs in a double lung transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. After Jorge’s initial letter to the Gregorys, they communicated again, and they decided to meet. Jorge and his wife, Leslie, went to visit the Gregorys at their home in Maryland in July 2009.
“It was an answer to a prayer first uttered in a hospital room in New Orleans,” Eric said. “Here, in the flesh, was the man who would not let his donor be forgotten, and who brought the young man home again to his parents’ embrace.”
During that emotion-filled reunion, the Bacardis shared their plans to build a “house of care” at the Mayo Clinic, and to name it for Chris.
The Gabriel House of Care has been open since 2011. It houses transplant and radiation oncology patients and their caregivers. It is dedicated not only to Chris, but to organ donors everywhere.
“They won’t let this boy be forgotten,” Eric said, of the Bacardis. “They call us on Christmas, they call Grace on her birthday. The fact that these people are willing to continue to be a part of our lives is really special.”
But the Bacardis were only the beginning of Chris’ story. The Gregorys soon met Nic Whitacre, founder of the H-E-R-O Movement, an internet-based advocacy initiative that stands for Help Everyone Receive Organs. Nic was literally sent home to die the morning Chris’ death certificate was signed. But that evening, while he sorted through the important documents that his wife would need, he received a call that there was a match for the organs he needed. That night, Nic returned to the hospital and received a kidney and pancreas from Chris. Nic is alive and well, thanks to Chris’ generosity.
So too is Mac, who received Chris’ heart, and who keeps postponing his plans for retirement. It seems he’s just too busy. And there is Xavier, who has one of Chris’ kidneys, and Carolyn who has his liver.
“Each is Christopher in the present, not the past,” Eric said. “Christopher is a part of their lives, and they are now a part of ours. It’s been six years, but Christopher’s heart still beats, his eyes still see, and his lungs still draw breath. And the love that he had for humanity did not get buried on that cold April morning when we laid him to rest.
“To us it does not matter that they might be rich and have a famous name, or if they are anonymous and of simpler means. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are alive. Because every day that they wake up, they can love someone. A child, a spouse, a niece or a nephew. Every one of them can be a friend or a neighbor. And that’s what Chris would want.
“It matters that Nic and Jorge and Carolyn and Mac and Xavier are alive,” Eric added. “It matters that Chuck and Arlene can now see. Organ donation represents humanity at its very best. Not just as a scientific achievement, but as a sincere expression of human kindness. It matters that Christopher’s organ recipients are alive because each of them is important to someone. And if they matter, then Chris matters, and his sacrifice means something.”