Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
THE GIFT OF HOPE THAT SAVED A LITTLE GIRL
In 2015, university student Kris Chung donated part of his liver to save the life of a toddler he’d never met – and gained an unexpected reward for his sacrifice
FROM THE MOMENT
Johanne and Michael Wagner met their daughters in November 2012, they feared the girls would die. At 18 months and barely four kilograms each, the Vietnamese twins they’d adopted were clearly very sick. After holding them, Johanne and Michael wandered the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, devastated. They bought matching red and black jars: one to hold Binh’s ashes and one to hold Phuoc’s. They wanted to show their new daughters love, but worried there wasn’t much time.
Soon after the Wagners returned home to Kingston, Canada, with the
twins, genetic testing confirmed that both girls had Alagille syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes bile to build up in the liver, severely reducing the organ’s ability to eliminate waste from the bloodstream. By December 2014, Binh and Phuoc desperately needed liver transplants.
While Johanne and Michael were waiting to discover if either or both of them would be a match, they launched a Facebook campaign to search for donors. In January, Michael, a major with the Canadian Armed Forces, learned he could donate – but only to one child. (While only part of the liver is donated and will grow back, a person can safely undergo the procedure only once.) Doctors decided Michael’s liver would go to Phuoc, who needed it more urgently.
After the Wagners posted the bittersweet news on their Facebook page, the campaign went viral. Though the couple insisted they weren’t forced to choose between daughters, relying only on their doctors’ advice, the situation struck many as a medical Sophie’s Choice. Hundreds of potential donors filled out applications. In February 2015, Michael donated to Phuoc, and in April the Toronto General Hospital chose an anonymous donor for Binh.
At a press conference that month, Johanne and Michael tearfully thanked Binh’s donor, whose identity, they believed, would stay a secret. That is, until about a month later, when a stranger posted the donor’s name on the Wagners’ Facebook campaign page for no apparent reason.
Johanne deleted the comment, but the way the name was spelled stuck with her: K-R-I-S – not Chris. Kris Chung. Overcome by curiosity, she searched his name on Facebook, learning he was a 19-year-old English literature student at the Royal Military College of Canada, a five- minute drive from her home. Determined not to breach Kris’s privacy, Johanne changed her routine and avoided the downtown area, worried about an accidental meeting. But she anguished over the secret. This young man shares more with my daughter than I do, she thought. So why isn’t he here?
THE WAGNERS WERE
allowed to send a thank-you note to the donor. During her daily runs that summer, Johanne would fret over what to write; she often broke down in tears. In the end, she decided her gratitude couldn’t be captured in words. Thank you is too easy to say, she thought. We say it all the time. Thanks for the coffee. Thanks for the bill. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. In the end, she wrote in her note that she’d make sure Binh treasured his gift. She sent the card in September. Typically, donors send an anonymous reply, but Johanne was met with silence.
With five biological kids and four adopted ones, family is the centre of Johanne’s world. But by October, still not having heard from the donor, she
couldn’t shake the feeling that hers was incomplete. Michael supported her but took a more practical stance. If the donor wanted to stay unnamed, they couldn’t do much. Then, in February 2016, Johanne received a card – though, to her dismay, the donor didn’t divulge his identity.
AS SOON AS SHE HUGGED KRIS, JOHANNE FELT THAT SHE’D FOUND HER FAMILY’S MISSING PIECE
For his part, Kris says that he waited to reply because he knew that if he never met Binh, his note would have to last a lifetime. In his card he thanked Johanne and Michael for what they’d done for the twins and assured Binh he’d never regret the transplant. He added that he hoped she would have a fulfilling life, marked by her own desire to give back.
21, had filled out the donor form online moments after reading about the Wagners’ story in the news. He felt moved by their selflessness and was struck with the thought that he, by comparison, hadn’t done much to contribute to his community. He wanted to change that – and seeing Michael in his uniform cinched it. Humble and spotlight-averse, Kris barely told anyone his plan pre-surgery – not his parents, friends or professors. He was disappointed when he learned he was the second choice – until the chosen donor cancelled the night before the surgery. Kris got the call and instantly said yes.
During the months following the surgeries, Kris would see posts from the Wagners in his Facebook feed. Johanne used them to share her thoughts on creating a legacy for her daughters through charitable work. Why not use the attention to do good in Vietnam? (In January 2016, she also started working as the Vietnam and US adoption programme coordinator for the Ontario branch of Terres de Hommes, an international children’s right’s advocacy group.) Kris, who ‘liked’ the posts on Binh’s health, was also drawn to the idea that he could keep making a difference.
Shortly after he sent the card, Kris responded to a post on the Wagners’ page. Johanne, who was planning a trip to Vietnam, asked followers if she should go through Hong Kong or Taipei. Kris chimed in, suggesting Hong Kong. He and Johanne chatted about the trip, later exchanging phone numbers. Johanne had no idea if Kris was aware that she knew he was the donor; Kris says it’s hard to say when he suspected Johanne had figured it out. Finally, one day roughly a year
after his surgery, the young man sent a text asking if Johanne and Michael wanted to meet. They said yes.
The trio met for coffee that Monday and talked for three hours. Johanne says that as soon as she hugged Kris, she found her family’s missing piece. Kris remembers being happily surprised that Johanne and Michael accepted him on sight; there was no racial barrier to navigate. The men swapped stories about their operations; Kris heard updates about the twins. When the couple left, Kris told them he was staying to do some reading. But instead he just sat there, absorbing. He’d waited to contact them because he was recovering from the surgery, but he also wanted to be sure the Wagners weren’t just interested in one meeting; he wanted to be part of the twins’ lives – and their legacy – too.
A week and a half later, he met six of the Wagner kids, including Binh and Phuoc. “It was unbelievable,” says Kris, “to see her and think that a little bit of me is with her right now.”
Within minutes, Binh was pointing at Kris’s hair, excited that it was dark like hers. At the end, she wrapped her spindly arms around him. A few weeks later, he came over for the afternoon and ended up staying for dinner. An instinctively solitary guy, Kris was hesitant about Johanne’s offer to spend time with the whole family. He wasn’t sure he was ready for what he imagined would be the chaotic energy of the household.
That night, he and Johanne chatted until 4am. For months, she’d desperately wanted him to be part of the family. Now, almost instantly, he was.
KRIS REMEMBERS BEING HAPPILY SURPRISED THAT JOHANNE AND MICHAEL ACCEPTED HIM ON SIGHT
“KRIS! KRIS! MY KRIS!” It’s early March, less than a year after their first meeting. Five-year-old Binh pistons down the hallway and latches onto Kris’s leg. This happens before he can close the door, or even quite say hello. Later, at the family’s giant dinner table, his body becomes a jungle gym for both twins.
The girls are vibrant. Their feeding tubes are gone; their skin is cleared of Alagille’s telltale rashes and jaundice; and they’re in school – a milestone the family wasn’t sure they would reach.
Binh likes to smile and say, “Kris liver me.” It’s become a verb now, an expression of love and gratitude. He liver me. I liver you. “This warms my heart – when I see those three together,” Johanne says. “He didn’t only help Binh. He helped Phuoc, as well. They’re inseparable.”
He’s also become a sibling to the other Wagner kids. A week before, Kris cut seven-year-old Toan’s hair just like his: shaved on the sides, slicked back on top. When Fiona, the Wagners’ second- oldest child, felt lonely at camp, she called Kris – she knew her big brother would understand. He and Johanne put together a care package, including a ukulele and some snacks.
It’s not just Kris who’s become an honorary relative. His eldest brother and mother, who live in Vancouver, and his father, who lives in Hong Kong parttime, have all met the Wagners. While Kris’s mother doesn’t speak fluent English and none of the Wagners speak Cantonese, they’ve managed to make it work. Last June, while on a business
trip, Johanne visited Kris’s mother and brother in Vancouver. They met again in August, when Kris’s mum and dad visited Kingston, commandeering the Wagners’ kitchen to cook dinner. When the mums are apart, they text using a mix of English, photos and emoji.
SUNDAY NIGHT DINNER
is now a shared tradition for Kris and the Wagners. This evening, Michael serves plates heaped with rice, dumplings and steamed buns. Kris is beside Binh, who demanded, gesturing with her neon Hello Kitty chopsticks, that he sit next to her. Conversation drifts from the best Vietnamese food ( the younger children discovered they liked squid after Michael told
them it was “underwater chicken”) to what the teenagers are learning in school. When the meal is over, dishes are delegated to the oldest kids, and Johanne and Kris duck out to the Wagners’ finished garage, which has become the hub for their new nonprofit organisation, Twins for Hope, dedicated to helping children in Vietnam.
Inside, neatly organised on shelves, are bins filled with Twins for Hope merchandise: decorative paper fishes, incense and hand- crafted pop- up cards, all made in Vietnam. At one point, the pyjama-clad twins bound in and take turns leaping up beside Kris. As they giggle, he and Johanne talk about the organisation’s future.
Kris hopes he’ll be able to stay in Kingston after graduation – to continue with Twins for Hope, but also to remain close to his new family. While he admits a crew of 11 is a lot to take in, he’s thankful for them. There’s always someone here, he says, gesturing to the house, but also in the sense of here for you. Many of his friends, he adds, are glad to finally be on their own. Instead, he’s found an entire second family.