Families of organ donor and recipient bond at emotional meeting
It was about 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2014, when Tonya Chandler got the text from her 21-year-old son’s former girlfriend.
It said: I’m with Dillon at Prospect Church. He’s talking about hurting himself. Call 911 or get here as soon as possible.
Tonya typed back: I’m on my way.
With her husband Sonny at her side, Tonya drove as fast as she could. It was 8 miles from their home to the church in Albemarle.
Another son, Zachary, got the same text. But he lived closer and got there first. He was in arm’s reach of his younger brother when Dillon raised a .45-caliber handgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Soon after, Tonya screeched her car to a halt, sliding sideways in the lot. She ran to Dillon, the youngest of their three sons. Blood pooled under his head. Although horrified and in shock, she instinctively gave him CPR.
“Dillon, please don’t do this to me,” she recalled begging. “Please don’t die on me.”
Waiting for a donor
That same night, about 100 miles away, Margaret Girgenti, 51, was dying from liver and kidney failure. She had been a patient at Duke University Medical Center in Durham since Oct. 7, when she was airlifted from Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. She was waiting for a liver transplant.
Margaret’s decline had begun when she was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor in 2006. It was successfully removed, but as a result she developed Type 2 diabetes and Cushing’s disease, a rare disorder that caused her to retain fluid. She also developed a liver disease called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.
Complications were catastrophic. In February 2014, Margaret fell into a coma.
This is what he wanted. He made himself a donor.…Our tragedy became their miracle.
Tonya Chandler, mother of Dillon Chandler
She recovered, but it happened again and again. Her husband would find her in bed, incoherent, at their home in Indian Trail. She was hospitalized every month that year, for three to 10 days at a time.
“I was in a coma constantly,” she said. But she always woke up. Some people began calling her “Miracle Margaret.”
But it couldn’t go on forever. In October 2014, doctors said she was dying. Only a liver transplant could save her.
She was now at the top of the list. But finding a match would be difficult. Her blood type was relatively rare, A-negative.
As they had so many times before, Margaret’s parents flew in from Long Island. Her husband, Sal, who had quit his accounting job to take care of his wife, stayed with her around-the-clock. She told him to tell their twin sons, Joseph and Christopher, to remain at Wingate University, where they were seniors. She wanted them to make sure to graduate.
‘Always helping people’
Dillon was airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center, and by the time his parents got there, he was on a ventilator and had already had a CT scan of his brain. It was after midnight, now Oct. 21, when a doctor explained that Dillon’s injuries were too extensive to be repaired.
Tonya was numb. But she had worked in the health care field for 25 years, and she had watched other families face the trauma she was now experiencing.
Without even talking to her family, she walked to the nurses’ station to speak with a family support staff representative. Tonya wanted Dillon’s organs to be donated.
Two days later, on the morning of Oct. 23, a doctor walked into Margaret’s room at Duke. “We may have a liver for you,” she recalls him saying. Still, more tests were needed.
Because of my donor, I’m able to do everything I want to do. I was given a second chance.
Margaret Girgenti, liver transplant recipient
At 5 o’clock, the phone rang. The liver was a “perfect match” – A-negative. It was being flown in. She had no idea where the liver was coming from. She only knew it was a miracle.
Surgery started after midnight on Oct. 24.
Later that day, at 1 p.m., more than 600 people gathered for Dillon’s funeral at Prospect Baptist Church. They parked in the same lot where Dillon had taken his life.
Tonya blamed herself for not recognizing that her son was considering suicide. “How did I not see this?”
But other people hadn’t seen it either. Dillon seemed to be always smiling and making jokes. He had attended North Stanly High and graduated through a home-schooling program in 2011. He had many friends and was passionate about cars and trucks. At the time of his death, he was a mechanic at Galloways 4 Wheel Drive Center in New London, about 50 miles northeast of Charlotte.
Pictures displayed at the church showed Dillon riding his four-wheeler in the Uwharrie National Forest, taking a selfie at the steepest point on Daniel Trail, and sitting alone at sundown on the beach at Cherry Grove.
Tonya remembered taking that last picture. She thought it looked like Dillon was “looking up at God.”
After a 14-hour operation, Margaret began waking up before she even left the operating room at the Duke hospital.
It was still Oct. 24, but she had no idea of how much time had passed. “Did I get my liver yet?” she asked.
Doctors and nurses told her most patients were out for 24 to 48 hours after a transplant. Margaret told everyone that she must have had a strong donor.
Her scar, with 77 staples, was a semi-circle across her belly. When she looked down, she saw an upside down U. She thought it looked like “my donor was smiling at me.”
After getting out of intensive care, Margaret spent several weeks in rehabilitation in Durham. In mid-December, she and Sal went home to Indian Trail.
Margaret had spent the last few years in a wheelchair and most of the last year in hospital beds. With physical therapy, she learned to walk again and got strong enough to do the laundry and drive a car.
In May 2015, she reached the goal she’d been aiming for. She saw her sons graduate. And on Nov. 30, she and Sal celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.
“Because of my donor, I’m able to do everything I want to do,” she said. “I was given a second chance.”
Focusing on positive
A few months after Dillon’s death, Tonya’s grief took her to what she called a “dark place.” She thought about suicide herself. She wanted to “go and be with Dillon.”
“I was angry at God,” she recalled. “I was angry at Dillon.”
But Tonya knew Sonny and two others sons needed her. She sought help through counseling and support groups. She heard other people’s stories and realized that her anger was not unusual.
She got involved with suicide awareness activities because she wanted to tell people to not be afraid of mental illness or ask for help. “It’s the people that you don’t see hurting, that you think are okay, and they’re not. They’re afraid to talk about mental illness.”
A year to the day after Dillon’s death, Tonya and her whole family walked in the first Hope Now event at the Albemarle YMCA. They started it to increase awareness about suicide and raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Tonya tried to enjoy everyday things – even a walk outside in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep. Referring to her Christian faith, she said: “I know that Dillon’s OK and that he’s being taken care of better than I ever could.”
In 2015, Tonya took another step toward healing. Through LifeShare Of The Carolinas, the Charlotte agency that had handled the organ donation, she wrote anonymous letters to the four people who received Dillon’s organs.
LifeShare and other organ procurement agencies restrict the contact donor families can have with recipients. Family members are allowed to write letters anonymously at any time, and the agencies deliver them to keep addresses private. After six months, if both parties want to meet, LifeShare will arrange the time and place.
In her letters, Tonya identified herself only as the “donor mom.” She didn’t know names, but she knew that someone had received Dillon’s heart, someone had his liver, someone had a kidney, and someone had his pancreas and the other kidney. She wrote that her son was a loving, caring young man and that she was happy he would live on through them.
About the same time, Margaret wrote a letter, anonymously, to the family of her donor and sent it through Carolina Donor Services, the organ procurement agency for Eastern North Carolina. She explained how sorry she was for their loss but how she thanked God for their donation. She said she prayed every day for the well-being of her donor’s family.
Margaret received Tonya’s letter at about the same time Tonya received Margaret’s.
Both women were overjoyed. Tonya loved learning that someone who had been so sick – “in the hospital probably for her last time” – was helped by Dillon’s liver. “Our tragedy became their miracle,” Tonya said.
In her second letter to Margaret, Tonya revealed her first name and Dillon’s first name, that he was 21 and that he had a son (a toddler named Weston) and two brothers. She didn’t reveal the cause of her son’s death, but she emphasized his giving spirit and quick wit.
Eventually, Tonya and Margaret were allowed to exchange emails. Because of Dillon, Margaret wrote, her sons had now registered as potential organ donors. Through the emails, Margaret realized that her twins were born in the same month, February, and in the same year, 1993, as Dillon.
By this time friends, the two women decided to meet.
On the morning of May 27, Tonya and her family showed up at 10:30 at the LifeShare offices near Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
The staff had arranged many previous meetings between donor families and recipients, but they were not expecting so many people.
Not only was Tonya accompanied by her husband, Sonny, and their two sons, Chadwick and Zachary, she also brought her two daughters-in-law, two grandchildren, her mother, her two sisters and two nieces.
They wore buttons featuring a picture of Dillon, smiling and happy.
To make the meeting more intimate, LifeShare staffer Jesse Roberts suggested dividing the group. He escorted Tonya, Sonny, Chad and Zachary to a conference room, where they would be the first ones to meet Margaret. He asked the others to wait a little longer, in a separate room.
In the conference room, Tonya stood, then sat, then stood again, pacing. “I’m just a ball of nerves,” she said. Fresh on her mind: She only told Margaret about Dillon’s suicide in an email the night before.
Margaret replied: It doesn’t change a thing.
At 10 minutes before 11, Margaret and her family arrived in the lobby at LifeShare. She introduced Sal, their twin sons and her parents, Ralph and Angelina Grasso, from Long Island.
“My heart is pounding,” Margaret said.
Relief at last
Tonya’s nervousness drained away as soon as she saw Margaret.
Knowing how sick Margaret had been for so many years, Tonya was relieved and heartened that she looked happy and healthy, no longer using a walker or wheelchair.
“It just put everything in perspective,” Tonya said later. “Dillon saved her life. A part of my son is living in this woman. And she is so thankful. She was glowing.”
Margaret, too, was relieved. She had wondered whether her donor’s family would accept her.
The two women embraced.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Tonya said through tears.
“I’m so thankful and grateful,” Margaret said.
“This is what he wanted,” Tonya said. “He did this. He made himself a donor.”
“Every day, I think of him,” Margaret said. “He’s on my mind 24/7. If I pick up the laundry basket, it’s because he’s right here.”
She took Tonya’s hand and touched it to her own belly.
She asked if Tonya wanted to see her scar. And before she got an answer, she lifted her blouse to display the “upside down smile.” Less than 10 minutes had passed. And they were already laughing.
Appreciating each other
The LifeShare staff soon brought in the extended families – 19 people in all.
When Margaret introduced her mother, Angelina Grasso wrapped her arms around Tonya and held on tight. They sobbed deeply, mother to mother. If anyone could understand Tonya’s loss, it was the mother who almost lost Margaret.
“You saved my daughter’s life,” Angelina said. “I love you so much. Thank you.”
“I’m so glad you still have her,” Tonya said.
Sobs and sniffles could be heard around the room.
Tonya offered gifts. One was a framed collage of pictures that showed Dillon’s “goofiness” and signature smile. She also gave Margaret a necklace with two pendants. One was a tree of life “in green for organ donation and rebirth,” Tonya explained. “And the feather represents communication with the spirits.”
Margaret couldn’t believe the coincidence. She had brought gifts too, and one was a charm bracelet that also had a tree of life and a butterfly that “represents new life.”
Margaret’s husband, Sal, asked if he could say a prayer: “Lord, we thank you for this blessed day..…We thank you for Dillon. We thank you for Dillon’s family.”
He also gave thanks for LifeShare and asked that others would become organ donors and “give the gift of life to someone else and help families that are in need.”
When Sal concluded, Tonya said: “Dillon is here with us. I feel him.”
Margaret’s father bought everybody lunch at a nearby Cracker Barrel so they could spend a little more time together.
The families agreed they would like to see each other again. Margaret said there are many relatives in Long Island who want to meet her donor’s family. Tonya said she’d like to show them more pictures of Dillon so they could “get to know him at each stage of his life.”
Days later, Margaret said she was “still glowing. … We all clicked. Everyone just got along. … If I had to choose a donor and his family, I would have chosen this family.”
Even so, she knew the day must have been hard for Tonya. “I naturally accept Dillon,” Margaret said. “He helped me. But I didn’t help them. She’ll cry for one reason. I cry for another. I didn’t want to upset her about the loss. I was hoping that I’d be accepted.”
For Tonya, meeting Margaret was bittersweet.
“It was nice to see her healthy and so full of life, a little sassy even,” Tonya said of Margaret.
As Dillon’s mother, she felt a riot of emotions: “Happiness. Joy. Sadness. Anger. But not at her. I’m so glad she’s still here. I’m so glad she has her family to spend, hopefully, many more years with. But I don’t have my son anymore.”
Because he’d still lived at home and the other boys were married and living on their own, Dillon had been most like a pal and confidante. Tonya wished she could tell him all about the day she met Margaret, the one who got his liver.
Become an organ donor
▪ More than 6,000 people died in 2015 waiting for a life-saving organ transplant.
▪ About 121,000 U.S. residents are awaiting an organ transplant; about 3,000 of them live in North Carolina.
▪ More than 30,000 organ transplants were performed in the United States last year, and more than 1,000 were performed in North Carolina.
Source: LifeShare Of The Carolinas
If you have concerns that someone you know might be thinking about suicide, here are some sources for help:
▪ National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
▪ Youth Suicide Prevention Program: www.yspp.org.
▪ Carolinas HealthCare System Behavioral Health Call Center: 704-444-2400, crisis hotline.