After fighting advanced diabetes most of his life, David Erving was preparing to die last year – until Concord native Jason Ray's kidney and pancreas saved his life.
Ray, 21, died in March 2007 after a car hit him while in New Jersey for the NCAA men's basketball tournament. He was there to cheer on the team as the UNC Chapel Hill school mascot, Rameses.
Now, Erving, 41, has formed a close bond with Ray's family.
Erving and his mother, Nancy, keep in touch with Ray's parents, Charlotte and Emmett, through weekly e-mails, monthly phone calls and the occasional visit, such as the one that has brought the Ervings to Charlotte last week.
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“When I first met Charlotte and Emmett, I was really worried because I didn't know if they would like me,” David Erving said. “I had a lot of trouble with the idea that Jason had to die in order for me to go on. But now, we are all family.”
The Rays say they feel connected to their son through their relationship with Erving and other recipients. Jason Ray's organ and tissue donations have gone to about 130 people so far. Preserved tissue and bones could help 60 more.
“He was always for the underdog. If he could help anyone, he would,” said Emmett Ray.
Last summer, the Rays met in New Jersey with four major recipients, including Erving.
“The reunion was absolutely beneficial for everybody. We're glad we got to meet them,” Emmett Ray said. “We definitely feel closer to Jason because of it.”
In the organ donor community, such relationships are unique. Until recently, the policy for donation agencies, along with federal law, kept recipients and donors blind to the identity of one another.
But in the last few years, many organ donation services, such as the local Life Share of the Carolinas, have started to change their policy of strict separation.
“Originally, the idea was to protect each party from emotional distress, especially in cases where the recipients have not done well since the transplant,” said Gary Burris, the director of operations at Life Share. “I think the whole donor system bought into the idea nationwide. Then we started being aware of families that have met and the beneficial outcomes.”
Life Share now has a policy that allows donor families to write letters to the recipients, with the donor and transplant agencies acting as the conduit. If correspondence continues for a year, with at least two written exchanges, donor and recipient parties have a chance to request a meeting.
Erving connected with the Rays through a similar program offered by the New Jersey Sharing Network.
Before Erving's transplant, he relied on weekly dialysis treatments for a decade. He had lost his vision in his right eye and part of his sight in his left eye.
“Before the transplant, I had already signed the papers to take myself off of dialysis,” he said. The decision would have led to his death.
Erving no longer needs to take diabetes medication and his health has improved significantly thanks to Jason's donation.
“I feel Jason with me all the time,” Erving said.