Three women sat, gathered around a table, alternating smiles and laughter with comforting embraces and tears.
Each said she is a part of the others. But their connection isn’t through blood.
A teenage boy killed on Labor Day 14 years ago is the source of their bond.
“Part of my son is still alive in them,” Kay Owens said, dabbing at her eyes.
“Literally,” Trish Pooley chimed in. “Very few of us have the chance to be given life again through an anonymous gift.”
Kay Pope nodded. “Without him, I wouldn’t be here. ... We thank God for him.”
In a rare meeting between the families of organ donors and organ recipients, the trio met in Wichita on Saturday to share a meal and stories about 17-year-old Bryan Owens – a boy who, with his death, had such a great impact on each of their lives.
The gathering, a quiet afternoon affair arranged at a north Wichita restaurant, was a first introduction between Pooley and Pope, both 60. Each received an organ from Bryan Owens after an ATV accident left the teen brain-dead in September 1999.
Kay Owens had met each woman before.
As they chatted, the women looked at ease. But their friendship – forged after exchanging anonymous letters – is uncommon.
“For the past year or two, we’ve had very few (families) that go on to meet in person,” said Brooke Connell, a spokeswoman for the Midwest Transplant Network, which helped facilitate Saturday’s gathering. “We have several (donors and recipients) who write letters back and forth, but that’s as far as it goes.”
Owens said she and her husband, Dean, chose to donate their only son’s kidneys, liver, pancreas and corneas in the aftermath of his crash.
Bryan was hospitalized on Sept. 6, 1999, after he jumped a small ditch with his four-wheeler and “didn’t land right,” his mother said. The impact left him with a brain stem injury and a skull fracture.
Doctors declared him brain-dead a day later.
“The decision itself – whether to donate or not to donate – wasn’t difficult,” Owens said. Her son, she explained, loved to help others.
“The hard part was having to go through the laundry list of questions they ask you about your child. ... Things you really wouldn’t think about about your 17-year-old.”
Meanwhile, as the Owenses grieved, Pope’s liver failed during a trip to Missouri from her home in California. Doctors told her husband if they “didn’t find a liver in three days, I wouldn’t make it,” she said.
“My husband walked around to the nearby churches and asked them all to pray.”
Bryan’s liver was available on the third day.
For Pooley, a Topeka resident, Bryan’s kidney came after 10 years of dialysis and eight attempts to obtain a transplant. Frustrated, she asked to be removed from the organ transplant list for six months in 1999.
A transplant coordinator told her to wait 10 more days. On the ninth, a phone call came, saying Bryan’s kidney was a match.
After the transplants, Owens said she wrote to each recipient. For the first year, the letters were kept anonymous. But later the women exchanged names, giving them a chance to meet.
“I immediately felt compelled to contact these people who received part of my child,” she said. “It was a very big help in my healing – just knowing that someone else was alive because of his death. And that something positive could come out of the negative.”
At their home in Stillwater, Okla., Pope and her husband, Chris, keep a black-and-white portrait of Bryan among other family photos that are hung on a living room wall.
“That picture holds a prominent spot there,” Chris Pope said, showing a snapshot of the grouping on his cellphone at Saturday’s gathering.
At Pooley’s home, the 17-year-old’s photos sit on a table near her bed.
“The first thing I see when I get up and the first thing I see when I go to bed is Bryan’s face,” Pooley said.
“This boy had the most generous spirit. Generosity is part of his soul.”
Owens smiled at her friends, then glanced down at a photo button pinned to her blouse. Bryan grinned back.
“It is amazing that these two people are sitting here right now because of a gift from my son – an organ that he can’t use in heaven,” she said.
“They are both amazing people and they’ve done amazing things, and they are very thankful for the decision that he made.”
Nearly 120,000 people are awaiting organ donations, according to the Midwest Transplant Network’s website. To become an organ donor, join the national donor registry at www.mwtn.org, www.donatelifekansas.com or at local driver’s license stations.