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Transplant recipient offers heartfelt moment for grieving mother

Gresham's Shannon Lusby travels to California to meet her organ donor's mother.


Shannon Lusby has an impossible task.

Today, she will thank a mother for pushing past her grief and agreeing to donate her dead daughter’s organs.

Shannon will try, and fail, to put into words how grateful she is for the heart beating in her chest.

The same heart that broke when Shannon heard the circumstances surrounding how she came to receive such a remarkable gift.

A bullet from a drive-by shooting killed a 16-year-old girl at a party in San Bernadino, Calif., on Nov. 19, 2005. Two days later, that girl’s heart beat in Shannon’s freshly stapled chest.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: MARA STINE - Shannon Lusby has a hard time talking about the senseless tragedy that led to her getting a re-doheart transplant in 2005. Top right, Shannon Lusby was 17 when she was diagnosed with a hereditary heart condition resulting in her first heart transplant in 1986. The oldest of five children, Shannon is pictured here to the far right. Her brother Patrick, center, and sister Kathleen, lower left, have both died from the same disease, as have Shannon´s father and aunt. 'This disease can wipe out a whole family,' she says.

Articulating such thankfulness and sorrow just can’t be done.

So when the girl’s mother made a simple request, a request Shannon in Gresham could easily grant, her new heart stood still.

“I just want to listen to my baby’s heart.”

After years of letters and phone calls between Shannon in Gresham and the girl’s mother in Southern California, the two will meet face to face Friday, Sept. 14.

And Shannon will let the still-grieving mother hear that familiar heartbeat once more.

***

When people hear about Shannon’s heart transplant, they sometimes ask what she did to her first one.

With the patience of a saint, she tells them about her hereditary condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. She was diagnosed at 17. It killed her father, an aunt and her little brother, Patrick, when he was 22. In February 2011, it contributed to the death of her sister, Kathleen Gordanier, of Vancouver. She was 51 and on the waitlist for a heart transplant when she died.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: MARA STINE - Shannon Lusby was 17 when she was diagnosed with a hereditary heart condition that led to her first heart transplant in 1986. The oldest of five children, Shannon is pictured here to the far right. Her brother Patrick, center, and sister Kathleen, lower left, have both died from the same disease, as have Shannons father and aunt. This disease can wipe out a whole family, she says.Shannon was the first woman in Oregon to undergo the life-saving procedure in March of 1986.

Back then, she was 31 and the mother of two young sons. She also was at death’s door and in hospice when a 22-year-old Hispanic man out for a jog got hit by a truck.

His heart became hers.

That heart lasted her 20 years, long enough for Shannon and her husband, Brad, to raise their boys, Chris, now 36, and Jason, 34. But a failed heart bypass and a series of heart attacks landed her back in the hospital in November 2005.

Shannon had made peace with the fact that she was dying. She is Christian and accepted it as God’s plan.

Then a miracle happened. A nurse came in and said she was getting a new heart.

The surgery — called a re-do in medical circles — was a success. It’s allowed her to see the birth of her first grandchild, Jackson, now 4. A second grandbaby is due in early April.

Now 58, Shannon hopes she lives long enough to see her husband, an electrician, retire.

***

As the one-year anniversary of her re-do neared in November 2006, Shannon wrote a letter of thanks to the donor’s family.

It was Thanksgiving: How could she not let the family know how thankful she was?

Three years went by.

And Shannon got a letter back.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: MARA STINE - Through letters from the donor's mother, Shannon Lusby got to know more about Melanie, the girl whose heart beats in her chest. She loved to run, play water polo and was on her high school swim team.

It was from a woman named Linda, the donor’s mother, and included a photo of her daughter Melanie. In the picture, the girl’s head is thrown back, a wide smile across her pretty face.

The letter also included a letter written from the perspective of Melanie.

She’d been at a party on the night she died. A stray bullet from a drive-by shooting hit her. The shooter remains at large.

Shannon read the horrible story, tears streaming down her face.

“When I got Linda’s letter, I cried for her because I just thought I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child,” Shannon says. “I mean losing anybody is horrible.”

By chance, two weeks before Melanie died, she happened to have a conversation with her mother about organ donation. It was in the context of getting her driver’s license. Melanie said she wanted her license to include the pink dot that identifies California residents as organ donors.

When Melanie died, her mother made sure her daughter’s final wish was carried out.

***

Over time, the two mothers corresponded, sharing more and more about their lives. Eventually Linda said she’d like to meet one day.

Shannon agreed, but the timing was all wrong.

Her sister had just died, and she was in the throes of chemotherapy for leukemia.

Eventually, Shannon’s health stabilized, and the turmoil of her sister’s death subsided.

About a month ago, Shannon was talking to her old friend, neighbor and yoga buddy Cindy Snell when Shannon said she really needed to get down to California and meet her donor’s mother.

Without missing a beat, Cindy offered to go with her.

Shannon arranged to stay with her brother-in-law in Huntington Beach, Calif., about an hour from where Linda lives. Then she got plane tickets and packed her suitcase.

“I’m excited,” Shannon says.

As for that heartbreaking request to listen to her baby’s heart once more, Shannon says, “I get it.”

She too is a mother.

And she too understands the mix of emotions that comes with donating a loved one’s organs. When Shannon’s sister died, she donated her eyes and tissue.

But as a recipient, the feelings are just as complicated.

There’s profound gratitude but also such sadness. Just talking about how her donor died makes Shannon cry.

“It’s just so sad,” she says. “But because of her passing I’m alive.”

Shannon just wants the chance to thank the girl’s mother in person, wrap her in a hug and let the beat of their mutually cherished heart comfort her once more.

“I am hoping it gives her some kind of closure,” Shannon says. “I’m hoping that it helps her heart heal. That her (Melanie’s) heart was not in vain ...

“It lives on.”