As her three children played around her, Jewel Bennett of Laurel remembered her fourth, a little boy who was with her in spirit Friday at the Legacy Lap, an annual gathering of organ transplant recipients and donor families at the Jackson Medical Mall.
Dominic Pollard Jr. was 16 months old when he died March 10, 2016, at Batson Children's Hospital. His parents gave others life, though, when they donated his heart, liver and kidneys.
“He liked to play with trucks. He liked to do the normal things that babies do,” his mom said. “He liked to eat cheese puffs. And, he had a twin brother.”
That's Dmarley Pollard, 2, who busily darted between his mother and two siblings in the minutes before the event. “He's two in one, “ his mother said.
Bennett son Dmarley Pollard as she stands next to a poster bearing the photograph of her late son and Dmarley's twin, Dominic Pollard Jr.
The Legacy Lap is sponsored by the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency, University Transplant and the University Transplant Guild. It recognizes the generosity of families whose loved ones died, yet in their grief agreed to donate one or more of their organs.
“I came today because I really wanted to meet other people like me who gave the gift so that other people could have a life,” Bennett said. “I wish I could meet the people who got Dominic's organs.”
So far in 2017, nine hearts, 38 single kidneys, one kidney/pancreas, one kidney/liver, one pancreas and nine single livers have been transplanted at UMMC. Nationally, 128,018 people are on waiting lists for one or more organs.
Both transplant recipients and donor families shared their stories at the Legacy Lap before taking a celebratory walk around the inside of the Medical Mall. Afterward, they stood outside and let go of balloons that rose in the sky, a tribute to both donors and recipients.
“I live in awe and utmost respect for our donor families,” said Dr. Christopher Anderson, professor of surgery at UMMC and chief of the Division of Abdominal and Hepatobiliary Surgery. “There's no doubt that every donor I'm involved with has a sad story. But life does spring from that sorrow, and it continues.”
Brad Fitzgerald of McComb told the gathering that organ donation has touched his family not once, but twice. Both received heart transplants at UMMC, Fitzgerald's father Nick about 20 years ago, and the younger Fitzgerald “one year and 14 days ago,” he said.
“I haven't met my donor family yet, but I can tell you that I love you,” Fitzgerald said. “There's no words to tell you how I feel.”
As his wife Teila looks on, heart transplant recipient Tim Lewis of Jackson tenderly holds the hands of Christina Jordan of Tupelo, who donated her son Gabriel's organs after his death in 2015.
It's rare, but donor family members and transplant recipients have figured out their common bond at the Legacy Lap. At the 2016 event on the UMMC campus, Tupelo resident Christina Jordan, who on Sept. 14, 2015 donated the organs of her teenage son, spotted Pearl resident Sam Walker. She had a feeling he might be the one.
She caught up with him as the crowd walked outside for the balloon launch. “I asked him if he was a recipient. He said kidney and pancreas,” Jordan said at the 2016 event. “I asked him his surgery date. He said Sept. 15, 2014. Then, he asked me: 'Are you Gabe's mom?'”
During this year's event, she recounted to those gathered who received the organs of 18-year-old Gabriel Jordan after her son, who suffered from depression and the loss of his father several years earlier, took his own life. Gabe's liver went to a 61-year-old Georgia man; his lungs, to a 59-year-old man in Kentucky.
Gabe's heart, to a 48-year-old Mississippi man. His left kidney, to a 65-year-old Mississippian. And Gabe's right kidney and pancreas, to 43-year-old Walker.
Jordan said she prayed for the eventual recipients of Gabe's organs as her son lay dying. “I prayed especially for his organs to be healthy, and for the transplants to be successful,” she said. “I prayed that there would be no rejection.”
In January of this year, UMMC and MORA volunteer Tim Lewis of Jackson met the family of the Houston, Texas, teen whose heart beats inside his chest. The mother of Brenden Russey, who died at age 18, “reached out to me three weeks before my annual checkup and said she wanted to meet me,” said Lewis, whose surgery was performed Jan. 4, 2014, at Methodist Hospital in Houston.
When they met, Lewis said, “she said, 'What do I call you? Do I call you my son?'”
“I said, 'Mrs. Jackie, you call me whatever you want,'” Lewis remembered saying.
Lewis said he and his wife, Teila, asked Brenden's mom for her address before they left. Her answer, Lewis said, was “mystical, magical and divine.
“She said she lives at 631 Timothy John,” Lewis said. “I said, 'Wait a minute! Timothy is my first name. John is Brenden's middle name.
“The Lord had already put it in order."