This gift comes but once in a lifetime

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Saturday, November 11, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

jJoseph Crespin and Daniel DeBroeck had known each other maybe 10 minutes. They had hit it off, this pair of middle-school-age boys. They sat on a couch in Joseph’s living room, giggling and whispering.

The scene at the home in Parkland, southeast of Tacoma, had the warmth of a holiday get-together. From the look of it, the boys might have been cousins catching up on kid stuff.

I thought back six months, to a living room in Everett. The scene had been somber when 12-year-old Daniel talked about his sister Diana’s favorite pastimes.

She loved to read and write. She "used to listen to the radio all the time," the boy said. His other siblings, Edward, Hally Rose and Leo, had bravely added their own memories of the sister they’d so recently lost.

Fourteen-year-old Diana DeBroeck died May 14 after suffering severe head injuries in a car accident in Spokane.

When I visited their Silver Lake area home in May, John and Mary DeBroeck told me about their terrible Mother’s Day loss. They told me about Diana’s deep faith and service to her church, St. Mary Magdalen in Everett, and her volunteer work with the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul.

They didn’t tell me about Diana’s final gift, not then. Only later did I learn that Diana’s organs had been donated so others could live.

Last Sunday, I joined the DeBroecks at the home of Joe and Josie Crespin. Their daughter, 15-year-old Antonette, is healthy today because of the liver she received May 15 from Diana DeBroeck.

Antonette was diagnosed in February with autoimmune hepatitis, her mother said. "She had been healthy forever, but was retaining water," Josie Crespin said. "She never showed jaundice or fatigue, but her kidney cells and liver cells were attacking each other."

The girl was hospitalized for 80 days, first at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma and later at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, where she had the transplant surgery.

"She is doing wonderfully. She went to a homecoming dance last night," Josie Crespin said of her daughter. Antonette, a shy, pretty girl with long, dark hair, wore a long skirt and dressy blouse for our visit.

I asked Antonette an impossible question. What does it feel like, to have a part of someone else? She thought I meant physically.

"It feels normal, the same as it was," she said. I didn’t push it, didn’t tell her I had meant spiritually, cosmically. What does it feel like? How could anyone find words to say.

The sophomore at Parkland’s Washington High School had found the words for her thank-you letters to the DeBroecks, sent shortly after her surgery. The Everett family has those letters and Antonette’s picture in a treasured scrapbook devoted to Diana’s short life.

Antonette sounded like any busy teen as she talked about being on a dance team, playing trumpet in the school band, and looking forward to being back on a fast-pitch softball field next spring. "It’s good being back at school," she said.

That their daughter is leading a normal, healthy life is an answered prayer for the Crespins. One family’s tragic Mother’s Day was for the other family a miraculous time.

"On Mother’s Day," Josie Crespin recalled, "I went to Parkland Christian Church and prayed, ‘Lord if you can give me any gift, give my child life.’ We spent that evening praying at the hospital."

At dawn the next morning, she and her husband got a call telling them a liver was available. By the afternoon of May 15, Antonette was undergoing the eight-hour surgery.

"God had taken care of her for us," Josie Crespin said. The identity of the donor was unknown to them, she said, but "we knew we had to pray for their loss."

The meeting of the families so soon after the DeBroecks’ loss was extraordinary, said Valerie Maury of the LifeCenter Northwest Donor Network. The agency is the nonprofit, federally designated organ recovery organization for Washington, Alaska, Montana and northern Idaho.

Maury, who works with families of organ donors, said hospitals are required to contact LifeCenter Northwest when a patient’s brain death is imminent. "We talk with the family and provide information about end-of-life options," she said. "Even if ‘organ donor’ is marked on a driver’s license, we still have to get consent."

The agency maintains the privacy of donors and recipients, revealing names only if both sides agree. Most often, there is an exchange of anonymous letters of thanks.

John DeBroeck has several of those in the scrapbook. Two people received kidneys from Diana, and two others got her corneas.

"This type of meeting is unusual," Maury said. "Sometimes recipients have a lot of mixed feelings. They have empathy, they can have guilt they are still alive. It’s tricky for both sides.

"The DeBroecks were anxious to meet Antonette," Maury added, because of the girls being so close in age.

"I felt God wanted us to meet," Josie Crespin said.

John DeBroeck finds hope in sharing his daughter’s story. He wants others to know "not only the joys of the recipient family, but also the comfort, joy and love that the donor family shares with another family for a lifetime.

"The love from the recipient family is a wonderful gift to the donor family, and vice versa," he said.

As Diana was, he is a person of faith, strong in his belief that "love is truly stronger than death."

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