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Gift of Life brings donor families and recipients together

As Arlinda Griffin stood alone on stage, singing a gospel hymn, and Mary Smith sat in the audience, fighting to hold back tears, no one could have guessed at the bond between them.

As Arlinda Griffin stood alone on stage, singing a gospel hymn, and Mary Smith sat in the audience, fighting to hold back tears, no one could have guessed at the bond between them.

Griffin is a 37-year-old former security guard supervisor from North Philadelphia, her eyesight all but destroyed by diabetes. Smith, 59, is an insurance agency owner from Warminster who befriended Griffin five years ago. She had driven Griffin to the singing contest last July at First District Plaza in West Philadelphia.

What brought these women together is deep inside Griffin: a donated pancreas and kidney from Smith's son, Eric, who died in a car accident.

The women exchanged letters and eventually met through a Gift of Life program that allows organ donor recipients and donor families to contact each other if both parties are willing.

The women regularly phone each other, have lunch, and go on errands together. "Knowing what a great person she is helps me deal with my grief," Smith said.

[Read more: Organ donation helps mother make peace with son's tragic end]

Lara Moretti, who supervises the program for Gift of Life, the coordinating network for organ and tissue transplants in this region, says that it has been ongoing for at least 20 years. She reviews some 75 to 100 letters a month; the agency asks participants to exchange letters for a year before meeting in person.

"Many transplant recipients are eager to share information about their progress and their renewed lives and to express their gratitude and to say thank you," Moretti said.

Donor families and recipients are about equally likely to make the first move, she said.

"We know that families of donors welcome and appreciate this. When a recipient acknowledges the donor family's loss and expresses thanks, their loved one's gift becomes even more meaningful and the correspondence may offer the family some comfort."

Lives turned around

Everything seemed to be going right for Eric Smith. He had graduated from Temple University's Fox School of Business and was working in the contracts division at Lockheed Martin. He was taking boxing lessons and had a wide circle of friends.

"He had told me eight weeks before he died that he felt he was going to do great things," his mother recalled.

Arlinda Griffin's future looked anything but promising. She was on kidney dialysis three times a week. On the other days, she was exhausted.

"It was hard for me to walk without losing my breath," she recalled. "Sometimes I'd have to spend the whole day in bed."

Early on the morning of June 12, 2011, at the corner of Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, their lives turned around.

Eric, driving back from the Jersey Shore, fell asleep at the wheel, ran a red light, and was hit broadside by another driver.

"We went from being on Cloud Nine to the deepest, darkest pit you could ever imagine," his mother said, remembering the knock on the door from police and the trip downtown with Eric's father and younger sister.

With Eric brain-dead and on life support at Thomas Jefferson University hospital, Gift of Life representatives talked to the Smiths about organ donation. They agreed without hesitation; Eric had signed up as an organ donor when he got his license at 16.

A 26-year-old man got Eric's heart, and lived to meet his second daughter. A 54-year-old man got his liver. Two people regained their sight with his corneas.

And Griffin, with a new kidney and pancreas after a June 2011 transplant at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, was finally free of diabetes.

Wishes for good

Smith jumped at the chance to meet the people who received her son's organs.

"I wanted them to know the kind of person Eric was and to wish them good health," she said. Griffin was equally enthusiastic about writing and, eventually, meeting.

"I've had no complications in five years," she said, "no sign of rejection. I'm pretty much in great health now; I feel fantastic."

Her goal is to sing the national anthem at a Phillies game.

Smith's life, too, has been transformed.

She recalls walking in a park wearing a "Donor Dash" T-shirt, a souvenir of a Gift of Life fund-raiser, when a bike rider looked at her and quickly stopped. "I received a kidney 30 years ago," he said. "I need to give you a hug and thank you."

"Through organ donation and Gift of Life and getting to know Arlinda and other people," she said, "I truly believe Eric has gone places and he is doing great things on this earth."