A Havre couple will meet the man who received their dead sons heart three years ago.
By Pete Soyer
Imagine unexpectedly losing a child. Imagine standing next to his hospital bed, hoping he will open his eyes, saying goodbye.
Now imagine a father on his deathbed. Standing next to him, needing a miracle to keep his heart going.
Imagine the miracle showing up.
Two worlds, two families, two lives, one amazing gift.
Kathy and Bob Doney's son, Chad, died Oct. 26, 1998.
Chad had come home with some friends and was in the kitchen of his Havre home. Someone got his gun and he put it up near his head and it went off.
Chad's death was ruled a suicide, but "we believe it was an accident," Kathy said.
Chad was flown to Great Falls. He never regained consciousness.
In the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, Doug Fenton was faced with two options. If a donor heart didn't appear soon he would either die or be forced to live with an artificial heart pump.
Doug, the father of three children, one stepchild and eight grandchildren, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 1992.
Doug went into the medical center in July 1998. When he came out, his wife, Jacqueline, said in a recent interview, he "would either be in a box or with a new heart."
Chad's heart was a perfect match.
After Chad was ruled brain dead, the Doneys agreed to let a team from Life Center Northwest harvest Chad's organs.
Kathy said she and her husband met with the life center team and made their decision. Afterward, they were told to take some time to decide if they were sure. "You're not in the best frame of mind," she said.
Chad's parents signed the papers around midnight Oct. 26 and by 2 a.m. teams from Life Center Northwest were removing Chad's heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas, tissues and eyes.
Kathy said the last time she saw Chad breathing was before the team took him into surgery. She got to say goodbye. "That was hard," she said.
Chad's heart was flown to the medical center in Seattle where Doug was waiting.
Doug said doctors told him about a possible match at 9 a.m. Oct. 27 and at 2 p.m. he was headed into surgery.
After 12 hours of surgery, Chad's heart beat in Doug's chest.
Doug said he was nervous and relieved when he found out a donor heart was coming.
"I was pretty much prepared to die at the time. I had said goodbyes and made peace with my maker. I was ready to go if that was what was in store for me."
He said he was torn between relief and sadness because of the loss of life that had to occur for him to live. "While you're so happy about being alive, you have to wonder why God chooses to save one person at the expense of another."
Almost three years have passed since the two families became connected. They have communicated with each other through letters, e-mails and phone calls.
Kathy and Bob are taking the next step Tuesday. They will meet Doug and his wife at their home in Blaine, Wash.
Kathy said she wouldn't have been ready to meet Doug before now. "I think it's time."
Kathy said she is nervous about meeting Doug, but also excited. "I'm anxious. Just anxious to meet him."
She said the three years since Chad's death have given her and her husband time to heal. They weren't ready to meet the recipients at first, she said.
Doug said, "I've been waiting a long time to do this."
He wants the first meeting to be very personal and very private. "I think on the first occasion we should keep it very intimate," he said.
But numerous friends and family members are anxious to meet the family that gave Doug a new life, Jacqueline said.
If she had her way, more than 100 people would be waiting to greet the Doneys when they arrive, she said.
"There are so many people who want to meet the Doneys, to be in the same room with them, to say thank you," she said.
The meeting will involve a small crowd on the Doney side. Kathy's parents, Bun and Morris Toldness; Bob's mom, Vera Doney; Kathy's sister-in-law, Kelly Toldness; and Kelly's daughter, Katie Toldness, also are going.
Doug said his stepdaughter, Jennifer Dohner, will be waiting with her family for the Doneys.
The opportunity for Kathy and Bob to meet Doug and Jacqueline was made possible through Life Center Northwest in Bellevue, Wash.
Jill Steinhaus, manager of marketing and public affairs in Bellevue, Wash., said families communicate with letters through the Life Center before they communicate one on one. She said the center reads the letters to check for inappropriate remarks. "We review the situation to make sure nothing inappropriate is being said," she said.
Not all donors and recipients communicate, she said. Some recipients don't know how to say thank you, so they never write. "Some may never talk to donors because they don't know what to say. How do you say thank you to a family who saved your life and they didn't have to?" Steinhaus said.
Other families, like the Doneys and the Fentons, write and develop relationships.
After letters have been exchanged through the Life Center, families can request to communicate with each other directly, she said. The donors or the recipients send a letter to the other, asking if direct communication is OK.
Kathy and Doug sent each other letters requesting direct communication at almost the same time. "They passed in the mail," Kathy said.
Doug said he put his letter with the request in the mail and the next day he got Kathy's letter.
Steinhaus said the Life Center helps coordinate some meetings for families. The amount of help it provides depends on how much the families involved want to do on their own.
The number of donors and recipients who meet in person has gone up in recent years, Steinhaus said. "Technology is making it easier" to communicate.
"I have never been involved with one that wasn't positive. Most families are so happy to see their loved one living on in someone else and recipients are so grateful," she said.
She added that most families remain in contact after they meet and become "really good friends. It really becomes an extension of a family."
Kathy said she and Doug first talked on the phone in November. Doug said they talked a lot about Chad and how Bob and Kathy "were dealing with it, how they felt about what had happened with me and how I felt. Quite a long conversation and a very emotional conversation I instantly felt these were very fine people."
Kathy said knowing a part of Chad is still living and helping someone else is a comfort. "Knowing that your child lives on, a lot of people don't have that chance."
Jacqueline said if she were in the Doneys' place, "I would want to touch Doug and hug him and feel that heart beating because that is part of her and that is her son. To know that must be comforting. I just hope I can let her know how much we know she gave and how difficult it must have been. I think no one can understand the loss of a child unless they have lost one."
Doug said, "I think it is a pain that the rest of us will never understand. I only hope if the roles were reversed that I would have the opportunity to do what the Doneys did."
Kathy said Chad liked hunting, fishing and working on his 1978 Chevrolet pickup. He was an avid golfer and soccer player too.
Doug, who also is an avid golfer, knew his heart was strong and young after the transplant, Jacqueline said.
She said Doug said the heart belonged to the future Tiger Woods.
Kathy hopes Doug and his wife can come to Havre to meet the rest of Chad's family in the future.
Doug was planning to come this summer, but said other plans got in the way.
"We would really like to meet the rest of Chad's family and see where he lived and get to know a little more about him," Doug said.
The waiting list of people who need organ transplants has more than 75,000 people on it, Steinhaus said. She added that 16 people die every day because an organ was not available, and a new name is added to the waiting list every 14 minutes.
In the United States last year 20,000 organs were taken from 6,000 donors. Montana had 28 donors.
She said the biggest reason the number of organ donations is so small is because people who think they are donors are not.
"Families always have the last say if organs can be used," she said. Every time a patient is declared brain dead or is facing death in a hospital, representatives of the hospital call the Life Center so its members can evaluate the patient. Family members have the final say, which means people need to talk to their family about their decision to be donors.
The Life Center approaches families with great care. "In the situation with the organ donation, they are facing the loss of a loved one that wasn't planned for," Steinhaus said.
Jacqueline and Doug are registered as organ donors. Since the transplant, Doug has traveled and given speeches to different groups about the benefits of organ donations and the fact that people need to talk to their families about their wishes.
Jacqueline said, "It is such a selfless gift. You are giving the most precious thing in the world to someone you don't know and will never meet."
For more information call Life Center Northwest at (877) 275-5269 or visit their Web site at www.lcnw.org.