CINCINNATI – A groggy Don Van Zant glanced at the clock when he picked up the phone: 3:28 a.m.
Calls in the middle of the night generally carry the worst of news. But on Oct. 10, 2012, the voice on the other end was crisp, clear and concise.
“You need to be at the hospital in four hours…or we’ll give it to the next person on the list.”
A liver. For him. Finally.
He quickly did the math: It was a two-hour drive from his North Lewisburg home to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center—a short drive for a life extension.
“It’s a very upsetting experience,” said Van Zant. “I felt guilty because I was alive and I knew somebody else had died.”
The day prior, Luci Grubb answered her phone in the middle of the night.
There had been an accident, her brother’s voice told her.
Her 26-year-old son Drew Mason and her step-son Michael Grubb, now 27, were headed south on Highway 35 in Kentucky when their vehicle went off the road and rolled.
“I knew it was severe, but I didn’t know the severity of it,” Grubb said in tears, as she recalled that Tuesday morning.
As both men were rushed by helicopter to UC Medical Center, Grubb and her family raced to the hospital from their New Liberty, Ky. home — 52 miles away.
That hour felt like a lifetime.
“We were spilling our hearts and praying that [Drew] would be OK,” she said.
Van Zant and his wife, Julie, didn’t say much to each other as the couple drove south to the hospital.
“Julie was making phone calls as I was driving, and I was silently praying,” he said.
The then-63-year-old man said he was at ease as he thought of the new liver—and new life—that he would soon have.
“I wasn’t scared. I was ready for whatever the outcome was going to be. I just felt so confident,” he said.
That feeling was a relief for Van Zant, who up until that Wednesday morning, jolted every time the phone rang.
“You started to think, ‘Are they ever going to call?’” he said.
Doctors told him his liver would fail within two to five years—and that was in 2010. If his liver cancer started to spread, they wouldn’t be able to do a transplant at all.
“If you can’t get a transplant, you will die,” Van Zant said.
The Grubb family filled the hospital waiting room when they arrived.
Grubb’s step-son was in surgery. He had shattered his neck and lost four of his fingers in the crash.
But doctors were no longer working to save Mason, her 26-year-old son.
“A nurse came out and told us they were getting ready for us to see him,” she said. “ I just started thinking, ‘This is bad.’”
Van Zant and his wife Julie sat in the hospital waiting room when they arrived.
“The doctor came in that morning and said ‘I have a perfect liver for you,’ and he really knew what he was talking about. The size was perfect for me and everything about it was perfect,” said Van Zant. “It’s a 26-year-old liver.
Grubb sat, looking at the life-support machine as she held her son’s hand.
He was still. The machine was pumping oxygen into his lungs.
“It was heartbreaking. Seeing your child lying lifeless,” said Grubb. “Drew was not still. He was never still. I don’t even think he was still when he slept. He was constantly moving, constantly moving something, constantly on the go.”
Hours passed. Grubb had to decide if she would keep him hooked up to machines or watch her son die.
“I’m never going to get over it. My heart is always going to hurt. It’s always going to be broken,” she said.
She signed the papers to disconnect the machine.
Van Zant asked the doctor about his new liver before going into surgery.
“I was trying to figure out where the liver came from. I asked ‘Was it far away?'”
“No,” the doctor said. “It’s right here at the hospital. The person is here.”
Two connected families—one grieving a tragic loss, and the other rejoicing new life because of that loss—were just feet away in the hospital waiting room. But it would be almost a year later before they would meet for the first time.
'I wanted to know these people. They had part of my son in them'
Van Zant thought of his liver donor every day after his transplant.
“Can you imagine any more important gift that someone can receive in their life than something that will keep you alive?” he said.
The gift was anonymous.
“I didn’t know who he was.…but he was always on my mind, and I was concerned. How was the family accepting things?” said Van Zant.
Organ recipients are discouraged from contacting their donor’s families. They’re not given details about the organ donor unless they go through a formalized process where both the recipient and donor’s family agree to talk.
“Many people are thankful and like to reach out to their donor families, but to actually have a relationship with a donor family, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it,” said Shimul Shah, the doctor who performed Van Zant’s liver transplant at UC Medical Center.
Van Zant wrote a thank you letter that he hoped to one day send to his donor’s family. But he never sent it.
“It’s hard for me to talk to people about it without
my voice breaking or tears in my eyes. It’s a very personal, emotional thing,” Van Zant said.
Months later, he received a letter from Luci Grubb. She wanted to meet.
“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to know these people. They had part of my son in them,” said Grubb, who sent letters to the recipients of Mason’s organs.
His liver, pancreas, kidneys, heart and lung donations had saved six lives.
"I was happy for these families, obviously, that they did get their loved one for more time, but it's hard for me because I know the reason that they get that time was because I took a loss," Grubb said.
In the letters, she told them about her son, who worked with a local farmer before he died.
"He never met a stranger. He had friends from all walks of life," Grubb said. "He was a big fan of the [University of Kentucky] men's basketball team, and he loved the Cincinnati Reds and the Bengals."
The two families talked on the phone for months before agreeing to meet for the first time, just three days shy of the one-year anniversary of Mason's death.
"When we were driving down to Kentucky to meet the family, I didn't know what I was going to say. I wondered, 'Is this going to rekindle a lot of bad memories for them? How are they going to handle it?' I didn't want it to cause more heartache," said Van Zant.
When he got out of the car, Grubb's family -- aunts, uncles and more -- came on to the porch.
"I still didn't know what to say," said Van Zant.
The family stopped, but Grubb kept walking toward him.
"I just went to him as fast as I could without running and just grabbed him and hugged him. We just stood there and hugged each other and cried," said Grubb.
"When we finally broke away, I felt like I had known this lady for many years and knew we would be friends for many years to come," said Van Zant. "It was just like having a family reunion."
The families spent much of the afternoon and evening together on that October day talking about Mason, who had connected so many through his loss.
"It was very emotional. It brought back a lot of memories of the accident and being in the hospital. It wasn't easy," said Grubb.
Van Zant and his family drove back to their home and took with them a picture of Mason, his mother and sister, Lindsey Grubb. That photo is now hanging in his pizza shop, where he tells the story to those who ask.
"We've touched a lot of people throughout the country by this," said Van Zant. "I'm 65 and I finally found out what my life's purpose is."
Van Zant created a $2,500 scholarship in Mason's name at his former high school in Owen County, Ky.
"I've got six grandsons now and hopefully my first granddaughter at the end of June," he said. "Having my grandkids to be able to see them grow and experience things with them, that means the world to me. I owe all of that to Drew Mason for the gift he gave to me."
The Van Zant and Grubb families continue to see each other and chat on the phone. For Grubb, their reunions are bittersweet reminders that her son continues to live on.
"He's a hero to me because he saved lives. Six lives. He gave six families more time with their loved one here on earth. Drew had to make the ultimate sacrifice to be able to do that," said Grubb.
Organ Donation By the Numbers
- 122,213 people are waiting for an organ
- 18 people will die each day waiting for an organ
- One organ donor can save up to eight lives
- 28,051 people received organ transplants in 2012
- More than 100 million people in the U.S. are signed up to be a donor
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
How To Become a Donor
- Register in your state
- Designate your decision on your driver's license
- Tell your family about your donation decision
- Tell your physician, faith leader and friends
- Include donation in your advance directives, will, and living will
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services