Donor’s family meets recipient
A year after Jamie Shennan died, his mum heard his heart beat.
She heard it in a hotel restaurant and, when she was done, passed the stethoscope to Jamie’s dad so he could listen.
Jamie was 22 when he died and – like the rest of him – his heart was big and healthy and strong. And now it was beating in the chest of a 60-year-old woman.
It was midnight on June 11, 2018, when Jamie’s organs began their new journey, their new lives, in five new bodies.
Five days earlier, the Napier man and two of his colleagues were sightseeing in the American state of Oregon when their car was hit from behind while they were giving way to another vehicle.
The back-seat passenger died immediately, while Jamie and his 25-year-old colleague were raced to hospital with catastrophic brain injuries.
Back in Napier, when told her boy wouldn’t survive his injuries and that his brain would be dead within 24 hours, Fiona Sheenan’s reaction was instant.
‘‘I said ‘he’s a donor, check his New Zealand licence’ . . . and there it was in black and white.’’ Jamie’s wishes to be a donor were no secret to his family – they’d had ‘‘the talk’’ – and Fiona said nobody baulked when the moment came, bar just one detail.
‘‘The only thing I couldn’t bear for them to take were his beautiful brown eyes – they were the windows to his soul – but afterwards I regretted that.’’
By the time Fiona and Grant had raced to their son’s side, his brain had died, and – once the forms were filled out and the tests were run, the harvesting of his organs began.
His left kidney went to a mechanic in his 40s; his right kidney to a married father in his 50s; his liver to a father of seven children; his pancreas to a woman in her 50s, and tissue from his lungs and small intestine went to be used for research.
And his heart?
Almost a year to the day that Jamie died, his parents travelled to the United States where, in the chest of 60-year-old Mindy Decker, sounded the heart of their son.
A bill to improve access to organ donation is currently making its way through Parliament.
The bill is bipartisan, meaning it has the support of both the Government and the Opposition.
Its goal is to increase organ donation in New Zealand by improving levels of compensation for those who donate, and by establishing a new national organ agency to oversee donations. This decision was made after consultation on the national strategy for increasing deceased organ donation found that an agency independent of district health boards should take on the role.
Fiona listened first, and when she was finished Mindy wrapped an arm around her as she sobbed: her hand still against the stranger’s chest.
‘‘I knew it wasn’t Jamie, there was nothing like that but it was so special.’’
Mindy had been near death before the transplant and Fiona said the trio instantly connected: ‘‘We had laughs, we cried, we shared photos.’’
In Portland, in the restaurant, Mindy listened to recordings of Jamie playing the keyboard and guitar.
He was good at that, his mum said. As soon as the trio met, Mindy asked if Fiona and Grant wanted to hear Jamie’s heart.
‘‘Little did she know we had also taken a stethoscope and were waiting for a moment to say, ‘Can we listen to your heart?’
‘‘Beautifully she put it: ‘It is our heart’.’’ Jamie came home three weeks after his death.
A plane chartered by the company he had worked for carried him for his final trip.
The grief is terrible, Fiona says, but there is solace in what her boy did for at least five other people who would have otherwise died.
A trace of Jamie’s beating heart taken on Decker’s one-year check-up is tattooed close to Fiona’s own heart, a heart that was broken in June last year.
‘‘We’ve lost our boy but what he’s given to so many others makes it just a bit easier.’’
Fiona Shennan’s son, Jamie, died after a car crash in the United States in 2018 when he was 22. She has shared the family’s story of donating his organs and meeting one of the recipients, Mindy Decker.