One Heart, Two Families: A Story of Organ Donation
For Donna and Mike Andre of Brushton, NY, numbers define the moments leading to their son Ben’s tragic death.
It was March 17, 2015 – St. Patrick’s Day, Mike’s birthday. Ben had gone to a friend’s house to wait for his girlfriend to get off work at 11. It was classic North Country March weather: snowy, blowy and treacherous.
At 9:15 p.m., state troopers knocked on Donna’s front door with the news that Ben’s truck had hit a snowdrift and then plowed into another car. “Is he still breathing?” Donna asked, before they headed to Alice Hyde Medical Center’s Emergency Department.
He was. In the ED, he was cold. His eyelids were fluttering. Donna was sure he was going to make it. Mike wasn’t so sure. Both former state troopers, they had already seen more than their share of accidents.
Over the next several hours, they learned Ben’s spinal cord had been severed, and he had extensive internal injuries. They were told he would be taken by ambulance to UVM Medical Center. Go home, said the ED staff. Pack your bags, and head to Burlington.
At UVM Medical Center, Ben was moved to the ICU. In the hours that crept by, Donna and Mike received regular updates. “Everyone was so kind, so careful to give us all the information we needed,” says Donna. “We knew things didn’t look good, but even then, I was sure I was coming home with my son.”
The following morning, at 10 a.m., they learned this was not to be. Donna and Mike sat in a private room as Ben’s team of caregivers told them their son was brain dead. “They could put him on a ventilator,” says Donna, “but I knew that was something Ben wouldn’t want.”
At 10:23 a.m., 23-year-old Ben Andre was declared dead.
For Donna, organ donation was the only next step. “I feel very strongly about it,” she says, “and I felt really supported in whatever decision I made with Jennifer DeMaroney and others involved. They let us ask all our questions. They helped us feel strong in making this difficult decision.”
At 3 p.m. the next day, Donna and Mike, supported by friends and family, walked Ben’s body to the OR for the organ retrieval. At the entrance to the OR, the team stopped to read a memory that Donna had shared the day before: Ben had been named by his sister Allison, for Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny. The team pledged that at each phase of the organ retrieval, they would stop and read this cherished memory aloud, so that all who touched Ben’s body paused to reflect on who he was and what he meant to those who loved him.
By 8 p.m. that night, Donna and Mike were back home when the phone rang. It was the Center for Donation and Transplant telling them that Ben’s heart was beating in the chest of a 45-year-old man.
A New Family
A year later, that man, Jeff French, reached out to Donna and Mike , and their families have been connected ever since. “It’s such a gift to know that something good came out of our loss,” says Donna. “It’s meant so much to us to build a relationship with Jeff and his family.”
That connection continues to grow. Donna sends Jeff birthday cards with a little reminder of the tremendous impact they have had on each other’s lives – and the numbers that still tell the story. “You’re 48,” read one. “But your heart is only 27.”