Double lung transplant patient honors his donor
Touches lives of countless transplant patients
Christopher Mark Gregory registered as an organ donor at age 16. At age 19 he lost his life, suddenly, because of a brain aneurysm.
Because of Christopher's decision to donate, 64-year old Jorge Bacardi received a lifesaving double lung transplant for his lifelong primary ciliary dyskinesia — and with it, his first-ever full breath of air.
Gabriel House of Care honors all organ donors
To repay the precious gift he received from Christopher, to honor all organ donors and to thank his medical team at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., Jorge Bacardi and his wife, Leslie, members of Bacardi family that has manufactured rum and other spirits for 150 years, made the lead gift for construction of the Gabriel House of Care at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
The name "Gabriel" has profound significance for both the transplant donor and recipient families. Before Jorge Bacardi knew his organ donor by name, and when he wrote his heartfelt letter of gratitude to the donor family, he referred to Christopher Gregory as "Gabriel," his saving angel.
Housing for transplant and radiation oncology patients
The Gabriel House of Care offers affordable, long-term housing and a supportive environment for visiting transplant and radiation oncology patients. With 30 rooms and 40,000 square feet, this warm, welcoming facility gives visiting transplant and cancer patients a much-needed home away from home. The design fosters a sense of community, allowing residents to share experiences and socialize in the great room, the community kitchen, the dining room and the large screened-in porch.
"Tribute to my son"
At the dedication ceremony for the new facility, Christopher's mother, Grace Gregory, spoke, capturing the emotions of the over 200 people in attendance. "As we stand here, in front of this beautiful, healing place — Gabriel House of Care — I know that everyone who walks into this building will find a warm, caring home and a place to heal. As a tribute to my son, this makes my wounded heart soar."
"What Christopher was able to do for Jorge, and what Jorge is able to do for others, and what Mayo will do for still others gives us hope and strength," says Christopher's father, Eric Gregory.
Fulfilling Christopher's wishes
According to his parents, Christopher Gregory was a fun-loving young man who made friends easily. "He was our baby, our youngest of three boys," says Grace Gregory, as she recalls her 6-foot-4-inch teenage son.
"Christopher registered as an organ donor when he was 16," she says. "Just a week before he died, we were all talking about organ donation. We were on spring break together, and we were all sitting around the dinner table. Somehow, we got on the subject of organ donation. And Christopher said, 'Of course I'm going to donate my organs.'"
"So when we were asked about it in the hospital," she says, "it was a matter of fulfilling Christopher's wishes."
"There's planes flying all over tonight because of your boy"
Eric and Grace Gregory and Christopher's two brothers were by his side when he passed away, at age 19. "Christopher's organs went to five people and his corneas went to two others," says Eric Gregory. "At one point, the organ procurement coordinator told us, 'There's planes flying all over tonight because of your boy.'
"It meant a lot," recalls Eric Gregory. "We knew that Christopher wasn't dying in vain; that his death would mean something."
Double lung transplant and first full breath of air
The recipient of Christopher's lungs, Jorge Bacardi, had struggled with ciliary dyskinesia since childhood, although it had been misdiagnosed as cystic fibrosis. Over the years, Bacardi had countless respiratory infections and multiple surgeries to remove infected and irreparable lung tissue. Still, he was concerned about receiving organs needed by others because of his age. "The toughest part for me was the decision to get on the transplant list and accept the gift of life," he says.
Leslie Bacardi says it was difficult seeing her husband struggle with the decision to pursue the treatment that was his only hope for survival. "We did a lot of soul searching, and eventually we decided we would pursue transplantation," she says. "I was elated."
"I knew that a lot of younger people were waiting for organs, and that made me think twice about opting for a transplant," says Bacardi. "I needed a focal point, a reason to accept such a precious gift. It was my wife and my nieces and nephews."
At age 64, Jorge Bacardi finally received that precious gift — a double lung transplant — and something most of us take for granted: oxygen. "My disease had forced my body to become accustomed to less oxygen," he says. "So when I took that first breath after my surgery, it was euphoric. There are few things in life better than being able to breathe."
Bacardi's transplant surgery was a remarkable success. He took his first steps 19 hours afterward and left the hospital five days after his feet first touched the floor. "Mayo Clinic means the ultimate in patient care and dedication," he says.
The transplant program at Mayo Clinic in Florida is one of the largest in the country. Cesar Keller, M.D., was Bacardi's lead physician. "He never seemed to leave my side," Bacardi says. "I remember waking up in my hospital bed at 3 in the morning, and Dr. Keller was there. I asked him, 'When do you sleep?' He told me, 'I can sleep later. This is more important.'"
Soon after his recovery, Bacardi and his wife contacted Mayo Clinic about making a significant gift — to repay the "precious gift" that he received.
Transplant recipient and donor families meet in gratitude
The Bacardis also began thinking about the donor family. Mayo Clinic encourages patients to contact their donor families via a letter that is coordinated through the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which screens the letters to ensure the anonymity of both parties.
Jorge Bacardi wrote a letter of gratitude to the Gregorys. When Eric Gregory received the letter, he used a magnifying glass and a heavy flashlight to detect the shadows of Bacardi's writing, which had been purposely obscured to protect his identity. "He had addressed the letter to 'Gabriel,' for the archangel of incarnation and consolation," Eric Gregory says. "He chose that name for Christopher.
"The impact that had on our family was powerful beyond words to describe," says Gregory.
The two families began corresponding. Jorge Bacardi sensed that the Gregorys wanted to meet him. But he was reluctant to do so because of the age difference between him and Christopher Gregory. He consulted with his Mayo team and friends in the double-lung transplant support group. All of them told him not to worry.
Still, he had to be sure, so he found a way to "break the ice," as he says. "They asked me about my schooling, and I wrote back that I graduated in 1966," he says. "Christopher's parents responded that they didn't know whether to call me 'son' or 'dad.'
"That showed a remarkable sense of humor," says Bacardi. "We made arrangements to meet."
Heartbreak into hope
The families spent a weekend together, going to Mass, meeting the Gregory's extended family, meeting Christopher's friends and visiting Christopher's gravesite, where Jorge Bacardi read a letter that described the life he and Leslie Bacardi were living "with Christopher."
As they said their good-byes, the emotion became too much to bear. "Eric and Jorge just collapsed in each other's arms and cried and cried," Leslie Bacardi says.
Today, the two families travel together, and the Bacardis regularly send letters and photographs to the Gregorys, sharing the life they are leading "with Christopher" — a generous young man whose precious gift has brought two families together, created a place of healing and fellowship, touched the lives of countless transplant recipients and turned heartbreak into hope.