Alin Gragossian, 31, was shaking as she opened the letter from the family of the woman whose heart had saved her life a few months earlier.
“I got a phone call from the hospital saying my donor’s family had sent me a letter. The nurse offered to scan and email it to me straight away, but I told them not to. I just wasn’t ready to read it,” she said.
A couple of days later the letter arrived. Alin said she burst into tears as she read about the “vibrant” young woman whose death had saved her life.
“I obviously always knew my donor was a human being, but reading about her as a person on paper made it so real all of a sudden.
“Every line I read gave me goosebumps. We had so much in common.
“We were just two young women laying in different intensive care units, waiting to see who would die first,” Alin reflected.
She posted on social media about the letter, promising to put her new heart “to good use” and saying “thank you from the bottom of… our heart”.
Alin, from Philadelphia, is a trainee doctor who works in emergency medicine and is specialising in intensive care.
“Before this, I would ring the organisation that deals with donations after a patient dies as part of my job. Now I really understand the power that phone call can have,” she said.
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Alin had previously written to her donor’s family, but had no way of knowing if they read her letter.
In the US, information about an organ donor is only released to the recipient if the donor’s family request or agree to contact.
The exact process varies across the country, but transplant centres act as intermediaries between donor families and recipients.
The United Network for Organ Sharing, which administers the organ donation system in the US, encourages anonymity in all correspondents.
With no way to contact them directly, she decided to post a reply addressed to the donor on her blog.
“I had a lot in common with you. It was more than just our blood type,” she wrote. “We probably would have been good friends. But instead, our paths crossed in the strangest of ways. On the last day of your life, on the first day of my life. On the worst day of your life, on the best day of my life.”
Alin says she respects the wishes of the donor family to remain anonymous, and has been careful not to reveal the contents of the letter.
However, she admits that she hopes the donor’s family see her response, and get a sense of the gratitude she feels.
The post moved a number of others to reflect on the connection between donors and recipients.
Some organ donation recipients said they were “a little jealous” of Alin for having contact with her donor’s family.
Lynette Hazzard, from Nevada, knows what it’s like to be on the other side of donor family-recipient communication.
Lynette’s son Justen died when he was 20.
He had been ill for a number of years and had spoken to his family about his desire to be an organ donor.
Justen’s heart, lung and kidneys were all matched with four recipients after his death.
Lynette has written to each of the people who received an organ from her son, and was moved to see Alin’s tweet expressing “gratitude, love and appreciation for the gift she received”.
“It took me months to be able to write a letter because I couldn’t find the words,” Lynette explained. “It was hard to put who our son was into a short letter.
“I wanted to make sure they knew what a loving, kind and strong young man he was. I wanted to make certain they knew that he loved helping others so much that he chose to give, even after his death.”
Lynette says that knowing her son has helped others keeps his memory alive.
“I feel like he’s still alive, living on through others. I hope that each recipient never takes a moment in their life for granted.”
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