If not for the generosity of families whose loved ones died this year, 47 people in Mississippi and surrounding states wouldn't have received life-saving organ transplants at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
There's joy in receiving an organ, and for many donor families, comfort in the knowledge that the gift of life from their son or brother or mother is inspiring others to do the same. It was a sentiment expressed over and over Friday at the second annual Legacy Lap hosted by the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency, the Medical Center's transplant teams and the University Transplant Guild held in UMMC's Norman C. Nelson Student Union.
Held during National Donate Life Month, the event promotes the need for organ donations in Mississippi. It brings together the families of organ, eye and tissue donors along with transplant recipients and their families.
“You somehow found in your hearts the ability to give a gift to someone you've never met,” Kevin Stump, MORA's chief executive officer, told the crowd.
More than 100 transplant recipients and donor families took part in the Legacy Lap, a gathering on the UMMC campus that brings those two groups together.
Since January, the work of the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency and the state's only transplant program at the Medical Center has made possible 30 kidney transplants, 11 liver, three heart and three pancreas. The organ donations are giving second chances on both life and quality of life, be it through a healthy new organ or tissues such as bones or skin.
Last year's Legacy Lap was where David Wilbanks of Jackson, father of the late Walker Wilbanks, first saw Sarah Thornbury, the 33-year-old Alabama woman who received his son's pancreas and one of his kidneys.
Jackson residents David and Sheila Wilbanks met Foley, Ala., resident Sarah Thornbury (center), who received their son Walker's kidney and pancreas, during the 2015 Legacy Lap.
“Meeting Sarah and her family was very emotional,” said Wilbanks, whose son, a Jackson Preparatory School football and baseball player, died in August 2014 after falling ill at a football game. Walker succumbed to a condition in which hydration and low sodium levels were issues.
“When I hugged her, knowing that a part of Walker was with her, I felt Walker's presence. It was amazing to see how grateful Sarah and her family were for Walker's gift,” Wilbanks said. “It was so awesome to tell them Walker stories, and to hear their stories. It felt as if we had already been friends with the Thornburys.”
When David and Sheila Wilbanks made the decision to donate their son's organs, “we left saying, 'Right, Walker's organs saved five people.' But he really saved five families. He saved five generations,” Wilbanks said Friday.
A balloon launch for family members of both recipients and donors was a highlight of the Legacy Lap. Just minutes before the balloons rose into the air, Christine Jordan of Tupelo and kidney-pancreas recipient Sam Walker of Pearl realized that Jordan's son, Gabriel, was Walker's donor. During their chance conversation, they connected Gabriel's Sept. 15, 2014 death to the day Walker's new kidney and pancreas transplanted at the Medical Center made his 20-plus years as a Type 1 diabetic history.
Christine Jordan of Tupelo hugs Sam Walker of Pearl moments after they met for the first time at the Legacy Lap. Walker received the pancreas and kidney of Jordan's son Gabriel.
“Today is the most peace I've ever had, because I met you,” Jordan told Walker through her tears. “It's given me some healing.”
Those taking part in the celebration also included 53-year-old Moseziner “Moe” Crozier of Byram, who received the heart of 28-year-old Kris Haywood at the Medical Center in March 2015.
“It was a life-changer for me,” Crozier said. “One day you're dying, and the next day you are reborn. I can't really describe how you can go from preparing your family for your own death - preparing them for the inevitable - and then getting up and walking down the hall by yourself.”
Byram resident "Moe" Crozier tells those at the Legacy Lap she feels wonderful after her heart transplant and is grateful for her new life.
During 2015, 90 people received a kidney transplant at UMMC. Also that year, there were six pancreas transplants, 29 liver transplants and 13 heart transplants.
The statistics are sobering. Nearly 1,500 Mississippians are in need of a transplant, as are more than 121,000 nationally. Every day, 27 people in the United States die waiting for an organ, and someone new goes on the national organ waiting list every 10 minutes. One organ donor can save eight lives, and one tissue donor can help heal 50 people.
David Wilbanks said his family became acquainted with Thornbury not through MORA, but because of a chance meeting in January 2015 between the grandmother of Jake Mangum, one of Walker's baseball teammates, and the mother of Thornbury.
“Jake's grandmother was at a store in Gulf Shores where Sarah's mom works. They struck up a conversation, and during the conversation put two and two together,” Wilbanks said. “Sarah's mom had been with her in Jackson on August 26 for Sarah's organ transplant.”
It was the same time as news reports of Walker's death just the day before. “So, when the Legacy Lap was set up, Sarah asked if she could meet us. We said of course.”
Jackson couple David and Sheila Wilbanks look at posters bearing the photos of organ donors, including their son Walker Wilbanks.
Since then, Wilbanks said, the two families have seen each other several times, the most recent on March 22, when Sarah and her husband Donald spoke at a Jackson Prep program about the need for organ donations. Wilbanks asked for students' help in raising money for MORA's 8K run and walk April 30, beginning at 7:30 a.m. at MORA's Lakeland Drive office and ending with a Celebration of Life picnic.
'I couldn't put into words how I felt toward them,” Thornbury, who with husband Donald has two children, said of her meeting with the Wilbanks family last year.
The families planned to meet up at the 2015 Legacy Lap, but before they located each other in the crowd, Thornbury found herself running after her then-1-year-old as he crawled away from her. She felt a tap on her shoulder. It was Sheila Wilbanks.
“We'd been there for 25-30 minutes, and he had crawled right in front of their table,” Thornbury remembered. “She recognized me because I had on the blue recipient T-shirt and she knew I had a small son. I turned to her and hugged her neck and started crying. The bond we had, even though we'd never met, was truly amazing.”
UMMC transplant surgeon and Department of Surgery chair Dr. Chris Anderson asks organ recipients and donor families to spread the word about the need for organ donation.
Dr. Christopher Anderson, professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery, asked Legacy Lap participants to continue spreading the word about organ donation. “I have the best job of anyone. I'm a transplant surgeon,” he said. “I'm humbled every time I get to participate in those operations.
“We have a good team here. I couldn't do it without them.”
Crozier said she connected with the family of her donor, Kris Haywood, through MORA. They keep in touch and are Facebook friends, she said. “He was as sweet as he could be, and some of the things he liked, I do, too,” Crozier said. “He was an animal lover, and he loved cheesecake. I'm addicted to cheesecake.”
She has a message for those exploring organ donation.
“A lot of people say, 'Oh, me donating my organs won't help Mississippi,'” Crozier said. “But it does. It may be someone in your own backyard who donates an organ to you, or that you donate to. You are helping your own.”