BELTON — No parent recovers from the death of a child, no matter the child’s age. Harker Heights couple John and Margaret Henderson will attest to that.
Their daughter, Amy Firth, died unexpectedly in November 2012. Blood clots were forming in the 38-year-old’s brain and no one knew why.
Firth had a grand mal seizure and never regained consciousness.
Pressure in her daughter’s brain was increasing as brain waves diminished, Margaret Henderson said.
“I could just look in her eyes and I knew she was gone,” she said.
Firth was a registered organ donor and her husband, Michael, didn’t hesitate in complying with her wishes.
The Hendersons didn’t know at the time what a comfort and sense of purpose that donation would have as time passed.
John Henderson, a former English professor at Central Texas College, has dealt with his daughter’s death by writing and reading everything he can about grief, losing a child and organ donation.
Margaret Henderson has collected many photos of her daughter, taken from the time she was a baby until just a few days before her death. She’s made photo books for Firth’s two children, Matthew and Alyssa, who were 11 and 8 when their mother died.
Valarie Fratiani, Firth’s sister, ran back-to-back half-marathons in honor of her sister a month after Firth was buried.
Less than a month after Firth died, the family received information from Southwest Transplant Alliance about her organ donations. Firth’s right kidney went to a 58-year-old man, the left kidney to a 61-year-old woman, the pancreas to a 28-year-old woman, the liver to a 66-year-old man, the heart to a 59-year-old woman, and a 26-year-old woman received her lungs.
On the first anniversary of Firth’s burial, the family received a letter from Carrie Gibbens, the woman who received her lungs. She wanted to share her story and express her gratitude for their gift.
Two weeks ago, the Hendersons traveled to their daughter’s house in Allen and met Gibbens and her family for the first time.
“We were so excited that she wanted to meet us,” Margaret Henderson said.
Gibbens was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was 9 months old. Her younger brother, who also had the disease, died while waiting for a lung transplant, just a few months before Firth’s death.
Gibbens lived longer than anyone expected. She got married and had twins through a surrogate. The babies were born prematurely and spent four months in the neonatal intensive care unit.
During this time, Gibbens’ health went downhill and as a last-ditch effort she was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a procedure that uses a machine to take over the work of the lungs and sometimes the heart. She was on the machine for 21 days before receiving Firth’s lungs, a perfect match.
Meeting Gibbens meant a great deal to Firth’s family.
“It gave us great comfort and peace to listen to those lungs and watch her breathe,” Margaret Henderson said.
There was an instant bond, she said.
“We thought it would be awkward, but we sat there for three hours and time just flew,” John Henderson said.
No one who has lost a child is ever healed, he said.
“The person who died is no longer in your presence, literally, but is there in other ways and you explore those other ways,” he said.
John Henderson said he sees Amy looking back at him in his wife’s clear blue eyes.
“When I pat Matthew’s shoulder or stroke Alyssa’s or Valerie’s hair, that’s a physical way I can experience Amy,” he said. “The memories of her 38 years are always available.”
Focusing on the opportunities, and not just the loss, is a help.
“Everything we do is bittersweet,” John Henderson said.
Gibbens’ motto is “Live Like Your Donor is Watching,” Margaret Henderson said.
The Hendersons’ desire is that Gibbens live her life to the fullest with no perceived pressure or guilt. “The first thing she wrote to us was ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to watch my kids grow up,’” Margaret Henderson said. “That’s all the reward we need.”
Be a donor
John Henderson sees his role as continuing to be an educator about organ donation.
“There are people every day who die because they didn’t get the organ they needed,” he said.
Signing on as an organ donor is like so many other activities that need to be taken care of in advance of unforeseen events, such as medical directives and living wills, he said.
More than 100,000 people in the United States are waiting for organs.
“Knowing what type of person Amy was and knowing that she’s helped a number of people to continue to live has been a help,” he said.
The Hendersons endowed a scholarship in their daughter’s name at Baylor University for students seeking a master’s in speech language pathology. Firth worked as a speech pathologist with an emphasis on children with autism.
The family also supports Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism.
The time following their daughter’s death was very difficult because it was so unexpected, Firth’s parents said. Counseling, support groups and friends have helped.
“You learn to take what you are given and try to deal with the loss any way you can, but also see it as an opportunity to share with others and help others,” John Henderson said.