When UCF student Brooke Dawkins died in March 2014, her family never expected she’d make such an impact — especially not one nearly 1,300 miles away.
A few weeks after she was hit by a truck while crossing Alafaya Trail on Feb. 23, 2014, Brooke was declared brain-dead and removed from life support.
The day before her death, her father, Chris, said it was clear that the efforts to reduce the pressure in her brain were not working.
“We were told it was only going to be a matter of time before all brain activity would cease, and our Brooke would not be able to recover,” Chris said. “Once it became clear to us she was not going to recover, we told the hospital staff our wish to donate her organs.”
Through the organ and tissue donation service TransLife, Brooke’s family left it in the hands of the service’s coordinators to communicate with possible organ recipients anonymously.
Little did they know Carol Wright, a 57-year-old woman living in Madison, Wisconsin, was tapped on the shoulder by a nurse at 12:30 a.m. to be told she was the perfect match to Brooke’s heart — same size and blood type.
Ecstatic and at a loss for words, Carol called one of her four children, Emily, who was driving from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin at the time. Emily, 26, rushed to her mother’s side when she heard the news.
“She came up and we were just in tears. We couldn’t believe it, this was it — a miracle,” Carol said.
In August 2001, when Emily was in sixth grade, Carol had a suffered a silent heart attack while jogging, which is what started the trouble with her heart.
With more testing and an electrophysiology study, which shocks the heart out of rhythm to test if it can go back, doctors realized Carol’s heart was not able to beat itself back into rhythm.
Doctors decided to give Carol a defibrillator to deliver a therapeutic dose of electrical energy to the heart when needed.
As time went on, her heart condition worsened, and hope was very slim because she was not “bad enough” for a transplant. She was placed at the bottom of the wait list.
“At that point, even through high school, I don’t think I really got it, and I don’t think I understood the gravity of it. I don’t think any of us did because it was still kind of developing; her condition was still in the early stages,” Emily said. “I was with her like every day in the hospital. I decorated her hospital room and would come and bring books.”
In January 2014, a surgeon encouraged the transplant team to consider Carol for a balloon pump to help her heart continue beating and expedite a possible transplant.
Connected to a cart by several tubes, Carol was brought to the hospital in February 2014 for surgery to insert the pump, which was filled with helium to easily be absorbed into the bloodstream in case of rupture.
Carol was then put at the top of the list for a heart transplant.
“I didn’t realize I only had a couple weeks to a couple months to live, that was it. I was dying,” she said.
Two weeks later, Carol was awakened by the nurse’s tap on her shoulder.
“She may not have lived for another month without a transplant. Everyone was so happy for her, but she knew that her good news was devastating news for another family,” Chris said. “She just seemed to really get that, understanding what it meant to receive someone else’s living heart.”
After her transplant, Emily had stepped up as the key support figure for her mom, posting signs of dos and don’ts to remind her mom of cleanliness, as there was a high concern of infection after the transplant, and also helping her mom get around and stay active.
Although the post-transplant medications have led to lifelong side effects, Carol said it is a blessing to be able to share her story.
“Her strength is through the roof, it’s so neat. … She had this energy and spirit that just wanted to run and live,” Emily said. “It lets the part of my mom come out that was kind of restricted for a long time. It’s really cool to see that side of her that maybe I didn’t know as well.”
The Dawkins family has been keeping in touch with Carol through letters, and they are excited to get to know the woman who is living with Brooke’s heart.
“I got a lot of bumps in the road for the rest of my life. I’m going to have these problems for eternity. But that is nothing when it comes to having the ability to breathe, to walk, to live. It negates all that,” she said. “It is a new lease on life. I would not be here today if it wasn’t for Brooke’s heart.
“I’ve gone through many days of being so proud that I have something very special inside me.”
The Dawkins family is working on setting up events for next year to celebrate Brooke, raise money for traumatic brain injury research and help increase organ donations.
There are currently 123,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, with more than 5,500 of those in the state of Florida, said Kristine Neal, the TransLife manager of public relations.
Every day, the list loses 21 people because there aren’t enough organs available for transplantation.
“I see it every day. People are restored to a life they may never have known existed. They get that second chance to walk their daughter down the aisle, to graduate high school or to run the marathon they’ve been dreaming about,” Neal said. “Donation is a very personal decision, but one that has far more power than we tend to think.
“Donation is truly about life, and ... the ripple effect it has on so many is immeasurable.”
Brooke was a registered organ donor and believed in it, and Chris said he is sure she is very pleased with herself because not everyone who wishes to donate their organs can do so.
“We miss Brooke too much. It is very hard. But we, as others who have lost a child, keep moving forward,” Chris said. “We plan to reach out to the others that received her kidneys, liver, corneas and pancreas. We had no idea who would get her heart or where it would be brought.”
Rachel Stuart is a News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @RachSage or email her at RachelS@CentralFloridaFuture.com.