By Milt and Janet Bemis
Sunday, Aug. 5, 1984.
It may be 36 years ago, but I can go back in my mind like it was just yesterday. A beautiful day with friends at a lake…children playing in the sand and swimming, lunchtime on the deck, and then time to fish. But wait a minute. Where’s Matthew? He couldn’t have gotten away and into the water.
Hysterically we searched the house, neighboring lots and the street. And then the screams! “They found him! In the water!” Our 2 ½-year-old son was lying lifeless on the dock. As we prayed, friends and neighbors worked frantically to revive him. We could hear the wail of the ambulance siren from miles away racing to our location. Riding in the emergency vehicle to the hospital, rushing inside, waiting for life to return. Decisions made to go on to Children’s Hospital & Medical Center for more critical care. Endless tests, sleepless nights, praying and hoping. But after two days, we realized it was over. Matthew, as we knew him, was no longer with us.
Facing the facts after two days of lifesaving efforts brought an exhaustive feeling of calmness. As his mother rocked him with tubes and wires attached, she looked at me and asked, “I wonder if we could…” I finished her sentence, “Donate?” She nodded her head. We looked at the nurse and doctor and asked. They seemed a bit taken aback and left to check for proper procedures.
Conversations begin. Questions asked and answered. But at that time of organ transplant history—with no official network—doctors called around looking for lifesaving organs as needed. Eventually the possibility of a need for a liver at the University of California, Los Angeles arose, but we needed to keep Matthew on life support overnight until final decisions and tests were made. While we waited, our last family photo with his two sisters was taken.
With positive results, a team from UCLA arrived that afternoon. Instead of notifying us when they arrived at Eppley Airfield, as planned, the phone rang. They were downstairs coming up for Matthew. A rush of activity exploded around us. Days of helpless feelings swirled and covered us again. His mother whispered to him that she loved him and was going to miss him. I leaned over the moving gurney and said, “Somebody needs you Matt. You are going to help someone. I love you,” as they rushed him down the hallway. It was over. Nothing left but crying and hugging with family and friends.
But the phone rang again. A local TV station received word from its sister station in Tucson, Arizona that a liver was found for their baby, Lily, at UCLA. It was an infant drowning from the Midwest. They knew it had to be Matthew. They had video from the previous day with parents hoping for new life for their 1 ½-year-old dying daughter, not knowing arrangements were forthcoming. “Did you want to see the video before the 10 p.m. news?” they asked. We said no. We were exhausted and would catch the news at home.
And we did. As we watched the news, we saw the little girl who might have more life to enjoy. We saw her mom and dad hopeful something good would happen with only days to live. And we saw a picture of Lily at the very moment she was in surgery receiving Matthew’s liver. All for a reason. All with a purpose. All in God’s plan. We knew we had made the right decision.
We were fortunate enough to know the recipient. We had her parent’s name and hometown. Totally unheard of! Should we call them? Maybe write them a letter and let them know we were actively promoting organ donation? Finally we mailed a letter about four months later.
After three long months, a five-page letter arrived from Tucson. Sheer joy! Nothing but excitement and great news about Lily. But also tears for us and our loss. He saved her life.
Almost a year after losing Matthew, we met Lily and her mom at the Phoenix airport. We met in the terminal with media lights glaring. We spent several hours in the American West hospitality room and shared lunch. She was beautiful and so full of life! A large scar across her tummy reminded us of the tragedy both families survived and the special bond we shared.
They joined us in Nebraska for her fifth birthday, and in May 2005 we met her and her future husband in Washington, D.C. Three years later we attended their wedding as honored guests in Syracuse, New York—24 years to the day that Matthew died, and she celebrated her “second birthday.” We stood in the receiving line, introduced as her donor parents.
DIRECTTV’s “Hometown Heroes” relived the story of Matthew and Lily with millions of viewers worldwide over the years. Her ride on the Donate Life float in the 2009 Rose Parade brought us together, again but the story is not over. Lily’s husband, Brian, became a living donor in June 2017. He gave part of his liver to a total stranger in honor of his wife and Matthew. He, too, met the recipient at their post-surgery check-up, and again at their two-year medical review.
Thanks to social media his recipient, Dwayne, and our family have made contact. Though we still have a hole in our hearts, the ripple effect continues.