Photo by Tim Boyles for New York Daily News
In 1996, Matthew McIntyre, then only 14 years old, was killed when a friend accidentally shot him with a handgun. His heartbroken mother, Vicki Brannon, decided at the time to donate his organs.
And this weekend, Brannon got to hear her son’s heart beat for the first time in nearly two decades — in the chest of the woman, Jennifer Lentini, who received the transplant when she was 13 years old and suffering from heart muscle disease.
On Valentine’s Day – which is also National Donor Day – Lentini, now 31, flew from New York to Florida, where Brannon lives, to meet her heart donor’s mother and brother for the first time.
“I don’t think I slept for a few days,” Lentini tells Yahoo Parenting of her anticipation of the meeting. “I’ve been wishing for this for so long. All I wanted to do was thank them, but I didn’t know if ‘thank you’ would be enough. There’s nothing I can buy someone to thank them for giving me life. What if they didn’t like me? What if they didn’t think I did enough with the heart?”
Lentini says for years she only knew her donor’s first name and that he was a gunshot victim. But after years of digging she was able to connect with Brannon through Facebook, and she says it’s probably better that the meeting was 18 years in the making. “If we’d met right after the transplant it probably would have been hard for both of us,” she says.
Brannon met Lentini at the Tampa Bay airport, and says that first embrace was a powerful moment. “When she first listened to my heart, it was very raw,” Lentini says. “I just wanted to cry because I know it’s her son’s heart beating in my chest. I got this gift, I’m living my life, and a mother got to hear her son’s heart for the first time in 18 years. I think for her it was truly a magical moment.”
Lentini with a picture of her heart donor, Matthew McIntyre (center in the photo) with his step-father and sister. Photo by Kathy Kmonicek for New York Daily News.
Brannon knows her son would have wanted to donate his organs to somebody who needed them. “He was such a loving person that I know, and I knew then, that he would want that to happen,” Brannon told the New York Daily News.
Lentini says if she hadn’t gotten McIntyre’s heart she probably would have died within a few days. “Knowing that you have a guardian angel is an incredible thing,” she says. “I learned at a young age about the kindness of strangers. I live my life to pay it forward in his memory.”
Today, Lentini volunteers as an advocate for organ donation, sharing her stories at high schools and colleges. “There’s nothing I can do to bring my donor or any donor back, but if I can change one person’s mind, I can make a difference,” she says.
And on this Valentine’s day, she definitely made a difference for Brannon. “I was in fear of — if it didn’t work, if she passed, I would go through another loss of my son,” Brannon told the New York Daily News. “I’m overwhelmed, I’m happy — my son had a good strong heart and it has kept her alive. … I feel like I gained a daughter.”
Lentini agrees. “I’m planning another visit,” she says. “We are family now.”
For more information about organ donation or to become a donor, go to organdonor.gov