After tragedy, organ donor lives on
Couple befriends family of child who got their son’s liver
Gift of life
GLENVILLE Five years ago, John and Barbara Powers of Glenville got the phone call every parent dreads.
On May 3, 2008, their 22-year-old son, Jeffrey, was critically injured after a fall from a three-story building in Worcester, Mass. The couple raced to University of Massachusetts General Hospital and kept a mostly silent vigil over their son, who had suffered head trauma and damaged lungs, for the next two days.
Then the doctor told them Jeffrey’s brain stem had ruptured and he was brain dead. Barbara spoke up, saying she wanted to talk to organ donation representatives.
“I just felt we needed to do something. I knew that that’s what Jeff would want,” she said.
That decision has led to a special bond between the Powerses and Caitlin Downey, a 5-year-old girl from North Weymouth, Mass., who has become a poster child for organ donation.
Jeffrey Powers had only recently moved to Massachusetts to be near his girlfriend, who was attending college there. It was his first time away from home, and he got a job as an apprentice with a company that makes abrasive products, his father said.
That apprenticeship turned into a full-time job with a raise. John Powers said his son was pretty excited and went out with friends to celebrate. At some point during the night, he and his girlfriend had an argument and she told him to go home.
Jeffrey went home, cooled off and decided to go to his girlfriend’s apartment. He didn’t want to ring the bell and wake her so he decided to climb up the deck to the third-floor apartment. The deck gave way and he fell three stories to the pavement, suffering head trauma and internal injuries.
“You’re trying to somehow make sense out of the situation,” Barbara Powers said of their decision to turn the tragedy into a gift for someone else.
The Powerses were grateful they had more time to say goodbye to their son as his body was prepared for the organ donation. His large group of friends also got to say goodbye.
“We got to hold his hand, feel his forehead, talk to him,” John Powers said, choking up.
The organ donation people had the Powerses take Jeffrey’s handprints. It was very moving, even for the organ donation representatives, John Powers said.
On May 6, they took him off the ventilator and to the operating room to harvest the organs.
Jeffrey’s organs went to six people: his heart to a 62-year-old man, his left kidney to a woman of unknown age, his right kidney to a 43-year-old man, his pancreas to a 48-year-old man and a portion of his liver to a 47-year-old.
The rest of the liver went to Caitlin Downey, then 5 months old, who was born with a benign tumor on her liver that was growing so large it threatened her life.
Her mother, Shawnna, said Caitlin was very close to death before the transplant, done the same day Jeffrey’s organs were taken. After the transplant, doctors discovered her liver was less than 1 percent functional.
“It was going to fizzle out any second. It was truly a miracle that she got a piece of Jeff’s liver when she did, because she wouldn’t be here. She’s an amazing kid. She’s doing very well,” she said.
Caitlin came home from the hospital that July. Downey decided to write a letter to the Powerses in September because she was so grateful.
“I always wanted to know who saved my daughter’s life and wanted to thank the family,” she said.
About four months later, the Powerses received a call from organ bank officials asking if they would accept a three-page letter and a packet of photographs about the little girl who received a portion of Jeffrey’s liver.
“It was just a wonderful letter from two parents who were so thrilled that their daughter had survived a fatal illness, but they were also totally devastated that we had to go through our loss for that,” John Powers said.
Coincidentally, the Powerses’ daughter is named Caitlin, spelled the same way.
The Powerses didn’t write back immediately, which Downey took to mean the family didn’t want to establish contact. She said she understood because of the pain of losing a loved one.
She said John Powers told her later they read the letter, but found it hard to write a reply at first.
Downey didn’t think anything more of it until nine months later, when she saw someone had made a donation to Caitlin’s fundraising page for an annual walk to benefit the Pediatric Transplant Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. The Powerses also wrote a message on the website: “Caitlin brings us great joy.”
“I didn’t know who they were, but they seemed to know us,” Downey said.
She suspected it might be the donor’s family.
The Powerses left their contact information and through a little Internet digging, Downey’s husband was able to find Jeff’s obituary and a telephone number. Downey reached out to the New England Organ Bank to see if she could send emails to the family.
The Powerses and the Downeys traded emails for several months. Both families signed waivers to permit contact, and the Powerses visited the Downeys in December 2009, bringing a Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed toy that Caitlin still has.
Shawnna Downey said she was a little apprehensive at first, but her fears were soon calmed.
“As soon as they walked through the door, all that went away. I felt like I knew them forever,” she said.
Jeff and Barbara Powers have been to Caitlin’s birthday party and to Downey’s mother-in-law’s beach house for a clambake and other gatherings. Caitlin attended the wedding of Jeff’s brother Matthew in 2010.
“They’re awesome. I couldn’t imagine them not being part of our lives. They’re family now,” Downey said.
The Powerses participate in the annual walk for Boston Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Transplant Center every year, and John Powers also volunteers at the Center for Donation and transplant at Albany Medical Center.
The Powerses feel that with a part of Jeffrey’s kidney, Caitlin inherited some of his personality traits, including a stubborn streak and joy for living. Their son’s motto was: “I’m good at life.”
“He wasn’t at the point in his life where he was worrying about what he was going to do in 30 days,” John Powers said.
Caitlin also shares that philosophy — not getting down despite having to return to the hospital several times for illnesses.
“If you were around her, it’s almost like she knows what tough shape she was in. She’s got to live every second. She never cries,” Barbara Powers said. “She’s good at life. She loves life.”
During one of the family get-togethers, Downey called Caitlin a “little Taz,” comparing her to the popular Warner Bros. cartoon character. John Powers stopped suddenly and said he called Jeff the same thing when his son was younger and even bought him a Taz T-shirt.
The Powerses hope their story will convince more people to declare their intention to become organ donors, either through the Department of Motor Vehicles or online at www.cdtny.org.
They miss their son every day but are happy a part of him lives on through his organs. And they love their friendship with Caitlin and her family.
“We had this terrible tragedy, but we give thanks all the time that out of this tragedy we got this miracle,” John Powers said.
“And that’s what we called her — our little miracle,” said Barbara Powers.