URBANA, Ill. — There are three family pictures on the living room wall in Heidi Schoenecker’s Minnesota home — portraits of her two daughters, Lexie and Kennedy, and a boy named Brandon who has become part of their family in a very real way.

To understand why, we have to go back to January 2012, when Kennedy was diagnosed with Hepatocellular carcinoma, an aggressive form of liver cancer usually seen in men over 50 after a lifetime of drinking.

She was just 12.

Kennedy had three large tumors in her liver that were inoperable, and that type of cancer usually didn’t respond to chemotherapy.

Heidi remembers asking what her daughter’s odds were, and the doctor’s answer: It’s almost always fatal.

In that moment of anguish, when Kennedy looked up at her with those expressive eyes, Heidi could think of only one thing to say: “There’s always hope.”

Kennedy wasn’t eligible for a liver transplant because of her prognosis. But the family prayed for a miracle and two days later got a second opinion from an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic.

They started a new treatment plan, which involved 21-day rounds of chemo, part of it in a hospital. After two rounds, new scans of the liver shocked everyone: Her largest tumor had shrunk by half. The oncologists decided to continue treatment and reached out again to the transplant team.

On May 22, 2012, after five rounds of her 21-day chemo regimen, Kennedy was placed on a transplant list with the highest priority.

Just five days later, hope finally came, amid heartbreak.

Hundreds of miles away in Urbana, 17-year-old Brandon Umbarger, a star athlete at Heritage High School, was lying in a hospital bed with fatal head injuries. His car had crashed on the way home from a friend’s house two days earlier, and doctors had told his parents, David and Lauri Umbarger of Homer, that he would not recover.

Devastated, his parents agreed to donate his organs. Lauri said yes immediately. David wasn’t sure, unfamiliar with the process. But eventually, they both decided it was what Brandon — their compassionate, fun-loving son who had planned to join the Air Force — would have wanted.

“That is who Brandon was, always giving, always wanting to help others,” Lauri said.

On May 27, he donated four organs — his heart, both kidneys and his liver — saving four lives, including a 12-year-old girl in Minnesota.

That same day, the Schoeneckers were home after spending a day at a friend’s cabin. Restless, Heidi had risen early and headed out to the deck with a cup of coffee to enjoy the peace and quiet of their farm community.

At 8 a.m., the phone rang. A donor liver had become available.

She wouldn’t find out for two weeks that it was a 17-year-old boy, and it would be three years before she knew anything else.

Heidi felt numb, with conflicting emotions — grateful beyond words that Kennedy would have a chance to live, heartbroken that another family was dealing with the death of a child — “the very thing we were fighting so hard to avoid.”

The surgery went well, and Kennedy thrived. She got to surf in Hawaii, a lifelong dream. She went to high school, made the honor roll, got her first job and bought her first car. She went to prom last spring and is now a senior, looking forward to a career in pediatric nursing.

But always in the back of Heidi’s mind was the other family who was living without these milestones. The unknown family she had started praying for as soon as the possibility of a transplant came up, long before Kennedy was approved for a new liver. As a woman of faith, she said, “I would want someone praying for us at that moment.”

And she knew she wanted to find out more.

After an organ-donor transplant, communications between families have to go through Gift of Hope, the sponsoring agency, for a couple of years. Families can share some details, but not contact information or last names, to protect patients’ privacy.

In the meantime, Heidi sent several notes — a Christmas card, a letter with a picture of Heidi surfing and photos before and after her transplant — thanking the family and “letting them know how her life and our lives were changed because of their decision.” Friends would ask whether she had heard anything back, but the answer was no.

She yearned to find out more, but also had a deep respect for their privacy.

“What more could I ask? They had already given us the greatest gift possible,” she said.

Finally, three days before Kennedy’s annual checkup at the Mayo Clinic in 2015, she got a call from the transplant team’s social worker. She had a letter from Kennedy’s donor family. Heidi said she would pick it up in person at their appointment. She was an “emotional disaster” the rest of that day.

“I was about to find out a person’s name, a family, and be able to talk about Kennedy’s donor and not say ‘donor,'” she said.

At Mayo, they found a quiet place outside, and Kennedy read the letter aloud. Heidi cried. It was addressed to all four transplant recipients, full of details about Brandon’s life — who he was, how he died and what he loved, from basketball to hunting with his older brother Nicholas to spending time with his family.

Enclosed was a photo of Brandon, and a form Heidi could sign to have direct contact with the Umbargers.

She sent it in, got their contact information and wrote them a letter.

In the months that followed, Heidi shared all of Kennedy’s milestones with the Umbargers, via text or email, to emphasize how life — Brandon’s life — goes on through her.

She explained how they had decided to mark the anniversary of Brandon’s death each year by doing something he loved — starting with trap-shooting, which Kennedy has since taken up as a sport.

Through Kennedy’s “Caring Bridge” website, Heidi asked friends to leave inspirational messages for the Umbargers. The request was widely shared, and scores of people replied, including a woman who talked about the parents of one of Kennedy’s classmates who had agreed to donate his organs after their son died of a brain aneurysm.

“I have witnessed both sides of this coin in the lives of these young adults from the same grade,” Trude Schlangen wrote. “I pray that you will know that in your grief, there is joy. In your pain, there is hope, and in your giving, there is restoration.”

When Heidi emailed the link, Lauri was so overcome she couldn’t finish reading the messages.

Heidi’s goal from the start was to let the Umbargers know how much she appreciated what they had done for Kennedy and to “make them feel loved.” She knew how hard the decision must have been.

“I never want them to feel like the gift has gone uncherished or unappreciated,” she said.

Over the next 15 months, Heidi and Lauri grew close via text and email. Then they decided it was time to meet.

In September 2016, the two families met at a restaurant in the Wisconsin Dells, halfway between Homer and the Schoeneckers’ home in central Minnesota.

The Umbargers went to the restaurant early to get a bite, but Lauri was too nervous to eat. “My emotions were everywhere,” she said.

Everyone was anxious — especially David, who had long wondered what kind of person now carried a part of his son. The anxiety evaporated once he met Heidi, her husband Jay, Kennedy and Lexie.

“They were such down-to-earth people,” David said.

The two women hugged and felt an instant connection.

“It was like we had just called a friend to have dinner,” Lauri said.

The families are remarkably similar. Both live in farming communities and have two children. Like Brandon, Kennedy is a star basketball player. The dads are both prison guards — David at the Champaign County Jail, Jay at the state penitentiary in Minnesota. The moms both work in the health industry; Heidi is a veterinary technician, and Lauri is an executive assistant at Carle.

And for both families, faith is their rock.

They talked for a couple of hours that day, then headed to the Shoeneckers’ hotel for dinner, where they talked for a few hours more.

“The conversation was so easy,” Heidi said. “There was never an awkward moment.”

Lauri gave Heidi a book, “Inspirational Quotes for Women,” and Kennedy a necklace that said “Faith,” identical to the one she wears.

She also made a memory book with pictures of Brandon from the time he was little to the trip he took to Washington, D.C., not long before he died. She had agonized over the photo choices and the selection of the album, hoping Kennedy would treasure it.

Heidi and Kennedy presented Lauri with a poem, “So Hope Will Live,” about the gift of organ donation. It reads in part: “May my life bring comfort from the pain that hurts you so: We are strangers now a family, wherever we may go.”

The families have stayed in close touch since that day. On the anniversary of Brandon’s death this year, Heidi texted Lauri a photo of a blue candle she had lit for him at church, just to make that day “a tiny bit easier.” The Umbargers gave the Schoeneckers a bracelet made in Brandon’s honor that reads “Huntin’ in Heaven.”

The moms met for a second time on Friday, speaking together at a Gift of Hope event at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana to encourage others to donate.

For the Umbargers, the friendship has made Brandon’s tragic death easier to bear. David felt it within 15 minutes of meeting the Schoeneckers.

“It was just a weight lifted off my shoulders,” he said.

There was never a moment of resentment that their son had to die for Kennedy to live.

“From the day of losing Brandon, I’ve never wavered on that,” Lauri said. “I have my faith.”

She is now part of the secretary of state’s Life Goes On program to encourage more people to sign up to be organ donors — from teens on up — so loved ones don’t have to make that agonizing decision in a moment of grief.

And for the Shoeneckers, the friendship has solidified the strong connection they felt to Brandon from the start. Kennedy has continued to trap-shoot in his honor — “she’s not very good, but she does like it,” Heidi said with a laugh.

“She’s very aware of making good life choices, to honor Brandon,” she said. “She owes it to Brandon, to Brandon’s family — David, Lauri and Nicholas — to make it a good life.”

And that first letter from the Umbargers is framed with Brandon’s photo on Heidi’s “wall of honor.”

“He’s right there,” she said. “Brandon’s a part of our family now.”


Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, http://bit.ly/2zAGMal


Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Champaign) News-Gazette.

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JULIE WURTH
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