You guys. I’m freaking out. I did a thing. A potentially awkward, controversial, weird thing… but I did it, and I’m SO unbelievably glad I did. Truth be told, I’m not even sure how to start this post- my emotions are ALL over the place – but, writing and exposing myself to you all is how I process, so here we go.
Today, I became friends with Brian’s organ donor recipient.
Yes, you read that right. Alissa, the 42-year-old single mom of three who tore her ACL in a skiing accident, who received Brian’s Achilles tendon in a surgery that took place in late 2018, and who I received my first letter from in March 2019. We have exchanged a total of four letters over this past year, the process of which goes from writing, to sending to Legacy of Life Hawaii, who then sends it to a third-party reviewer before sending it on to the other. It’s a process that takes months in between each correspondence, but is in place to make sure both parties are comfortable with the exchange taking place. (Real talk, I think it’s mostly so that people who have lost loved ones don’t place unrealistic expectations on the donor recipient, AKA get super creepy with them and act like the donor recipient is now somehow taking the place of their lost loved one.) Crazier things have certainly happened. Alissa and I had both expressed our desire to continue communication and in one of her letters, Alissa had given me a little bit of information to be able to do a simple search and find her online. It isn’t exactly how these things are supposed to go, and I’m not advocating for other people in my situation to do what I did and reach out outside of the donor organization, but Alissa had expressly written about wanting to continue communication and had given me very direct information of where I could find her online. I wrote her a letter in October - which had been approved by Legacy of Life Hawaii- with my contact information so she could write to me directly, instead of having to go through the organization. I expected to wait a few months to hear back, but six months later I'd still received no word. I assumed one of the following scenarios: A) Hawaii USPS had lost the letter (certainly not out of the question fo the Hawaiian mail system) B) The donor third-party organization had rejected my letter and didn't send on my letter with contact info to her. C) Alissa had been weirded out by continued interest in communication and decided she didn't want to chat anymore D) She had written back but it was hung up somewhere in the process. I gave it a few weeks of waiting and trying to be patient in case it was scenario D, but finally, after six months of no letters, I decided to look for her on facebook. As soon as I typed in her name, a profile of a beautiful blonde woman, career listed as ICU nurse, popped up and I knew I'd found her. I clicked through her photos and saw a few pictures of three young men (her boys) and photos of rafting and running, outdoors and family adventures, and I smiled. I knew I wanted to reach out and connect with her, but I was nervous.
Hi Alissa, This is a little awkward, and I really hope this isn’t over-stepping any boundaries, or too weird for you, but you and I have been corresponding over the last year as the recipient of my late-husband, Brian's, ACL. I’ve been thinking about you these past few days, remembering you told me in one of your letters that you’re an ICU nurse, and it inspired me to reach out and see if I could find you on here. I received your last letter in September, and wrote you back after that with a release of my information for you to contact me directly. There’s potential you didn’t receive it, or they filtered it because I provided my personal information, or that you aren’t interested in further communication – which will make this reaching out even more uncomfortable! Haha – I don’t think there are any handbooks on how to become friends/acquaintances with your late-husbands organ-donor recipient, but this is me – and you can see photos of my kids and the adventures that we go on – when not on lockdown from worldwide pandemics. J In any case, no hard feelings at all if you’d prefer to keep things in letter form – or not – but I’d love the opportunity to continue to connect if you’re up for it! I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you, I hope you and your family are doing well during these crazy times, and that you’re staying safe, while trying to take care of everyone else. -Ashley
I hit send and then immediately started second guessing my decision to do so. Can you imagine opening up your facebook page, expecting to see a few ridiculous Tiger King memes in between the latest Corona Virus updates, and instead you see a friend request from the woman whose husband’s tissue now resides in your body? Is that weird? I think it might be. I called my sister-in-law Nikki and asked her opinion, she said to do it. I called my friend Matt, he said do it. I took that as the confirmation I needed and said, “Ok, I did it.” And then I waited. And waited. And waited. I checked my facebook messages every 4 minutes to see if she’d read it. What if she didn’t check her facebook message request folder? What if she didn’t recognize my first name and click on my profile to see the word ‘widow’ and she had no idea why this random Ashley girl was sending her a friend request? What if she immediately recognized my name and freaked out, thinking this was too much and super inappropriate? What if she’d received my letter but just wasn’t interested in communicating with me anymore? I was freaking out. I had a gin & tonic (…okay, two of them) while sitting outside by my fire pit and checked my messages incessantly until it was time for bed and I still hadn’t heard anything. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning, in mom mode and not immediately remembering I’d sent the message… until I heard my phone beep. A message. I picked up my phone and there was her name, Alissa. Alissa? ALISSA! I can’t recall a time in recent years that I’ve been more anxious to read a message than I was in this moment.
It’s you!! I was so tickled to see this request and message! I did receive your letter about a week ago, I was planning on replying it’s just been really busy back here:(
Yes I work in the ICU and frequently I have to work in the covid unit. It’s been difficult as my kids have not been with me for almost 3 weeks in order to protect them. I hope this is all over soon. I can’t wait to scroll through your pictures, you are a very very beautiful person! <3 Definitely want to continue contact with you, we have to cherish every little thing we can right now! Thank you for reaching out - and i can’t wait to learn more about you and your family!
There’s been so many things on hold because of all of this, both my marathons were cancelled. Had a ski trip planned w my boys in CO this coming week. I did get a chance to do the Rim to Rim at the Grand Canyon before we all went on lockdown:)
And so it began. It’s been 36 hours now of constant back and forth with this as-of-yesterday- perfect stranger whose friendship has been made possible because of my late husband and his desire to change and save lives by being an organ donor. She’s been watching videos of Brian sailing our boat across the ocean, she’s been reading the stories I’ve written about him and the life we shared together, she’s looking at photos of him out on epic adventures, and understanding his philosophy of living a life with No Bucket List, and she’s seeing what that Achilles tendon did for him, can also do for her. As a marathon runner and mom of three, she is no stranger to adventure and living out her goals, and to be perfectly honest, she’s a total badass and I’d want to be her friend, regardless of how I met her! But the fact she’s on this same crazy journey of living her best life, taking advantage of opportunities and seeing the value in doing things that might not be the easiest option, but that will bring joy – are things I loved about Brian, and things I strive to do myself. In the letters we exchanged earlier this year, we wrote about ourselves, our families, our jobs, and I tried my best to explain who Brian was, as a person, and also who he was to the kids and I. In each of our exchanges, we’ve been careful to be respectful and appropriate, not wanting to give away too much – or make the other uncomfortable – but both with a lot of questions and wanting to know about each other, Alissa curious about the events surrounding Brian’s accident, but unsure of how to ask, and me, wanting her to know how incredible Brian was, and how many adventures that Achilles tendon had brought him on, without overwhelming her. If you’ve never made contact with somebody who was the donor recipient of a literal piece of your loved ones body, or for Alissa, to talk to the grieving wife of the person’s tissue now growing inside of you – it’s an odd and potentially uncomfortable dynamic. I say all of this, only to tell you that these past thirty-six hours of talking have been full of laughter, tears, questions, answers, excitement, inspiration and hope – from both of us. Alissa’s getting unparalled access to the former life of her donor, and I’m getting to see my husband continue to adventure via somebody else, which is nearly too special to put into words.
I’m so insanely excited for Alissa and I, for the gift of this insanely special, unique and unconventional friendship and for all of the adventures ahead for both of us – and for you as you follow along on this crazy journey! We WILL be meeting at some point, and I can’t wait to share this with you as well.
December 2018, Alissa preparing for ACL surgery with a donor Achilles' tendon. She had no idea that 1000 miles away, a woman and three very young children were mourning the loss of this donor (cadaver) - Brian, and neither of us knew that only fifteen months later, with absolutely no other opportunity for our paths to cross, Brian would bring us together in this chance encounter, and we'd be sharing stories of love, family and adventure, and making plans to create memories of adventure together!
The new home of Brian's Achilles' tendon. Please don't be mad at me for posting this random photo of your leg, Alissa!! ;)
You can read more about our donor/recipient journey here. https://www.ashleybugge.com/post/from-your-grateful-recipient and https://www.ashleybugge.com/post/dearest-ashley