WILLSBORO — Harold Tart was battling liver cancer and was given little hope to survive, even if a matching donor was found.
The lifetime Essex native is still going strong nine years later, thanks to a successful liver transplant performed by Dr. Stanton Dodson at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
But it was not until this weekend that Tart came face to face with the human side of that life-saving transplant when he met the sisters of the woman who had donated her liver.
“At first I was kind of scared to meet them,” the 77-year-old retired Department of Transportation worker said of his visit with Lisa Szewczyk and Leslie Couty. The two women traveled from their homes in Chicago to meet the man who received the organ donation from their sister, Linda Reilly.
“But after we met, I realized they were everyday people, just like us,” he added. “I love ‘em.”
Tart has long had a deep appreciation for the donor who gave him the chance to continue life, however.
“There’s not a day or night that goes by that I don’t give that girl thanks,” he said of Reilly’s ultimate charitable action. “Now, I call her by her first name.”
For years, Tart and his family had no idea who the donor might be, but one of his four daughters, Pam Drollette, contacted the donor’s family through the Gift of Hope, an organization that coordinates communications between the family of donors and recipients.
Eventually, with approval from both families, names were exchanged, setting up the sisters’ visit to the North Country.
“This past year, in a letter that I sent to them, I said that if they ever would like to visit, they have an open invitation,” Drollette said. “I soon received an email that said ‘We’d love to come.’”
Szewczyk and Couty arrived Saturday morning at Burlington International Airport where they met Drollette’s sister, Linda Buttery, who was flying in from her home in North Carolina for the special weekend.
The trio then traveled to Essex where they finally met Tart and a third daughter, Sharon Kinblom.
“I was telling people at work that this seemed so weird,” Couty said of her decision to meet the recipient of her sister’s liver. “I said to them, ‘What do I say to these people?’ And they said, ‘You are never at a loss of words. You will know what to say.’
“When I called my mom Saturday night (after meeting Tart and his family), I told her that we’re blessed, that this guy (Tart) cracks me up, that he’s hilarious, that he reminds me of my own dad. He’s the perfect person (for her sister’s donation).”
A month before she died in a motorcycle accident nine years ago, Reilly called Couty and told her sister that she had decided to donate her organs if anything were to happen to her.
Couty did not pay much attention to her sister’s statements at the time, but now she looks back and sees that fate played a big role in all that was to come.
Both sisters said they wanted to meet the recipient of Reilly’s liver to share in the wonder of life the donation has given to others but also for their mother and father, Anna and Peter Willemsen, who could not make the trip.
Mrs. Willemsen has always been very vocal in remembering her daughter, but Mr. Willemsen has always chosen to hold his grief in silence. When he first heard of the approaching meeting, however, he could not have been happier and offered his support in any way he could.
The two families spent their Sunday traveling to Lake Placid for some sightseeing before returning to Drollette’s home in Willsboro for supper and an evening of relaxation.
While there, Szewczyk and Couty met Tart’s fourth daughter, Debbie Jerdo. The three women hugged and shared that special realization of a moment that will remain in their memories forever.
“The beautiful gift that their sister gave is a second chance at life,” Jerdo said. “For me, after losing two children, I believe that it’s not only that they gave life to my father, but that their sister continues to live on every time my father has another day.”
Jerdo and her husband, Doug, have been active organizers of the North Country Out of the Darkness walk following the suicide of their son, Joshua, in 2005. Tragedy also struck the family when their daughter, Lindsay, died of complications from meningitis a few years earlier.
The family also felt that deepest sense of loss when Kinblom’s daughter, Chelsea, died from brain cancer at age 7.
Tart’s wife and closest companion for 55 years, Teresa, died 3½ years ago, 19 days after she was diagnosed with leukemia.
But the family has remained close throughout those painful, life-changing events and shares a bond of faith that was only strengthened with this weekend’s visit.
Email Jeff Meyers: firstname.lastname@example.org