Christopher Mark Gregory believed that the best things in life aren’t things at all. Money and possessions meant little to Chris. He valued friendship. He believed in God, in family, in loyalty and in Mount Saint Joe High School. For him there was no greater privilege in life than to serve others. When his grandfather was in home hospice, during Chris’ senior year in high school, Chris would drive out of his way after school to check up on him. He placed greater value in relationships with people than with objects to be possessed. He was generous. Chris never had much money, but if he had ten dollars, and you needed five, it was yours for the asking.
It came as no surprise to anyone that Chris was a registered organ donor as soon as he had a license to drive. He affirmed this commitment one day in late March 2008. Our family was on vacation, and one night at dinner the conversation somehow drifted to organ donation.
"Of course I’m an organ donor. Why wouldn’t I be? What am I going to do with my organs after I’m gone.” And then with a twinkle in his eye that was uniquely Chris he continued, "And besides, who wouldn’t want THIS body?” That was the Thursday before Easter in 2008.
A few days later, Chris collapsed while hanging out with friends. He was nineteen years old, and a freshman at Loyola University New Orleans. He was rushed to Tulane University Medical Center and diagnosed with a ruptured brain aneurysm. On the morning of his second day in the SICU, the attending neurosurgeon looked us square in the eyes and said, "Christopher’s condition has worsened overnight. This is death.” Just like that. Chris died through no fault of his own. He never saw it coming and neither did we. In an instant everything changed. There was now a huge hole in our lives where our son once fit so perfectly.
Everything seemed hopeless until we were asked to consider donating Christopher’s organs. The process of donating a child’s organs is neither simple nor quick. It is something that must be endured if the donor family has any hope of passing on some piece of their loved one’s life to another person. But as soon as we were asked, there was no need for hesitation. The answer had already been made known that night at the dinner table only a week earlier. It was just a matter of affirming Christopher’s own wish. And then we met Joe Guillory, the organ recovery coordinator sent to the hospital by LOPA. Just before saying our good-byes to Chris, Joe took me off to the side. "There’s planes flying all over the country tonight because of your boy,” he said. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what it means to hear someone say that about your son at such a moment? The gears of a massive logistical machine had already been set in motion. Even though we were losing our son, lives were being saved. His brothers, his friends, and his parents all gathered around him in the early morning as he received the last rites, and then he was gone.
The mail box was filled every day with cards and letters from loved ones. The notes from Chris’ friends were especially touching. Then slowly, the cards stopped coming, the doorbell stopped ringing, and people stopped asking. Chris had been gone only 12 weeks when we got a call from LOPA. A letter had arrived from one of Christopher’s organ recipients. Did we want it?
Did we want it? Wisely we said to put it in the mail. And then we waited. Don’t expect to hear anything we had been told. And don’t expect much if you do. Then the letter arrived. The salutation and first lines of the letter had been edited by UNOS. It was impossible to read them. But the rest of the letter was true and sincere, "I cannot possibly imagine the grief caused by your loss, and certainly there are no words anyone can say or write that could extinguish that pain. Nevertheless, you have shared with me the grandest gift I will ever receive – the gift of life.”
It took me nine months to finally discover the lines of the letter that had been whited out. They read, "To Gabriel and his family: I am the recipient of a gift from your son that is beyond repayment. Since I do not know his real name, I have chosen to refer to him as ‘Gabriel,’ after the Archangel known as the Angel of Incarnation and of Consolation.”
The letter’s author was Jorge Bacardi. He was very near death when he received Christopher’s lungs in a double lung transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. As the communication between Jorge and us increased we decided to meet. Jorge and his wife Leslie came to visit us at our home in Maryland in July 2009. And during that emotion-filled reunion the Bacardis shared with us their plans to construct a house of care at the Mayo Clinic, and name it for Chris. It has been open since 2011 and is called the Gabriel House of Care. It houses transplant and radiation oncology patients, and their caregivers. It is dedicated not only to Chris, but to organ donors everywhere.
But that is only part of Chris’ story. We soon met Nic Whitacre, founder of the H-E-R-O Movement, an internet-based advocacy initiative. Nic was literally sent home to die the morning Christopher’s death certificate was signed. But that evening, while he sorted through the important documents his wife would need, he received a call that there was a match. And so Nic is alive and well, thanks to Chris’ generosity.
So too is Mac, who received Christopher’s heart, and is alive today, and keeps postponing his plans for retirement. It seems he’s just too busy. And there is Xavier, who has one of Chris’ kidneys, and Carolyn who has his liver. Each is Christopher in the present, not the past. Christopher is a part of their lives, and they are now a part of ours. It’s been six years, but Christopher’s heart still beats, his eyes still see, and his lungs still draw breath. And the love that he had for humanity did not get buried on that cold April morning when we laid him to rest.
To us it does not matter that they might be rich and have a famous name, or if they are anonymous and of simpler means. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are alive. Because every day that they wake up they can love someone. A child, a spouse, a niece or a nephew. Every one of them can be a friend or a neighbor. And that’s what Chris would want.
It matters that Nic and Jorge and Carolyn and Mac and Xavier are alive. It matters that Chuck and Arlene can now see. Organ donation represents humanity at its very best. Not just as a scientific achievement, but as a sincere expression of human kindness. It matters that Christopher’s organ recipients are alive because each of them is important to someone. And if they matter, then Chris matters, and his sacrifice means something.
On the day he died, Chris Gregory accomplished more than most of us will if we live to be a hundred. He didn’t care if you were black or white, rich or poor. He knew that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us. Chris loved everyone. He accepted you as you were. He was funny, and compassionate, and uniquely his own man. Everyone who knew him considered him their best friend. The sad thing is that it had to happen to someone so young, and who loved life as much as Chris did.
Our hearts swell with pride in what Chris was able to do. The world is not as happy a place as it would be if he were still alive. We miss him every day. But we have hope. Our lives are strengthened by friendships founded in gratitude and built on respect. We pray for our son, and for donors everywhere. And we will never forget their parents and brothers and sisters who carry that heavy burden in their hearts.