Saying Thank You and Expanding my Family

By Hilary Hoagwood

Nearly 10 years ago, I received a new liver.

Ever since my transplant, my family and I have felt immense gratitude to the family who had chosen to donate their loved one's organs to save someone they never met. I thought of the family often, especially around the anniversary of my transplant. I read stories and articles about people who had contacted their donor families. I thought about making contact, but I did not know what to say. I feared that anything I would say would be trite and inadequate, and, worse, I feared that hearing from me or my family would reawaken grief in my donor family.

My perspective on all of that changed when I attended my first Transplant Games in 2006. While the Games are an athletic competition, they are also a family gathering of transplant community recipients, donor families, and living donors. Some recipients meet their donor families for the first time at the Games. I was amazed by the connections that I saw between donor families and recipients. Additionally, seeing the donor families at the Games brought a personal reality to donation that I had not fully appreciated. I was inspired to write to my own donor family.

I had great difficulty in writing the letters. I struggled with how to express the joy that I feel in my life now as a result of being alive and healthy, thankful for what they did for me and knowing the generosity of the human spirit. I did not know how to express that joy without sounding insensitive to the loss and sorrow they had experienced. It took many years and many drafts, but my mother and I finally sent letters and photos to the family we had thought of so often.

Those letters began many communications and an indescribable connection. We learned about my donor Sofia and her life and family. Not surprisingly, Sofia was beautiful, intelligent, and generous. She served in the Army and was working towards attending law school. She had a daughter and would do anything to help or bring joy to her daughter and the rest of her family.

We learned that Sofia’s mother and sister were living in Texas. Sofia’s brother Angel lives outside of Washington, DC (not far from me and my mom) with his wife and two young daughters. Angel is in the Army and saw our letters and photos a few weeks before deploying to Afghanistan. He wanted to meet us before he left! My mother and I arranged to meet Angel and his family one Saturday in September 2010. We all love horses, so we arranged to meet for lunch and horseback riding. That day is one of the two major highlights of 2010. The second highlight was a day in October when we met Sofia’s mother Elena, sister AnaMaria, and her niece and nephews while on vacation in Texas.

The experience of meeting my donor family is indescribable. Words like powerful, inspiring, humbling, and profound are accurate descriptors but do not do it justice. Perhaps the thing that struck me the most was how easy it was to talk and joke with them. This was the case for both meetings—Angel and his wife and daughters in DC, and Elena and AnaMaria in Texas. It felt as though I had known them my whole life. I did not feel any of the things I had feared—I did not feel judged or evaluated. I did not feel like anyone was sizing up whether I was healthy “enough” or smart “enough” to be worthy of their gift. I did not feel pitied. The conversation was not awkward. Of course we talked about Sofia and her life and death. We talked about my family and my journey. We shared photos. Tears were involved. But the experience did not center on death, livers, or health.

Meeting my donor family was very grounding and centering for me. It is easy for me to become so wrapped up in day-to-day details that I become stressed over things like traffic, meetings at work, or getting laundry done. It is easy for me to criticize myself for not swimming fast enough or for missing a serve in tennis. Every time I see, talk to, or look at a photo of Sofia or anyone in her family, it reminds me of what is really important. What matters is that I am alive. What matters is people caring about other people and being kind to them.

I have always put a strong value on family, the unconditional love and support within a family. I now have three sides of my family to celebrate holidays and share life with—my father’s side, my mother’s side, and my donor side.