CP photo by Stephen Caruso
Mary Grace Hensell
When John Chomko, 59, was told he had pancreatic cancer, he knew from the start his odds for survival were minimal.
“When I was diagnosed, the doctor told me to settle my things,” Chomko says.
Even after multiple procedures, his prognosis did not improve. The cancer had been removed from much of his body, except for parts of his liver. Without a donation, he would die.
Five years ago, on April 1, at 6 a.m., he found out he had his donation, because of the tragic death of Brian Hensell, 24, who had been killed in a car crash two days earlier.
Knowing how close he was to death, and looking at how he survived, Chomko feels grateful for each day that goes by.
“You have a higher sense of urgency to do things in your life,” he says.
On Monday night in Shadyside, at Family House, an affordable, home-like residence for the families of Pittsburgh hospital patients, Donate Life Pennsylvania and the Center for Organ Recovery and Education hosted a dinner to let Chomko and other organ recipients give thanks in person to the family of the man who saved their lives.
Hensell, had his heart, liver, pancreas and kidneys given to three men. Melvin Protzman, 63, received Hensell's heart; Brian McTiernan, 61, received his kidneys and pancreas; and Chomko, his liver.
Monday was Hensell's family's first chance to meet all the recipients and their own families. His mother, Mary Grace Hensell, had met Protzman about a year after his transplant, but had yet to meet Chomko or McTiernan.
“My son gets to live on in each and every one of you,” she said. “My son wanted it, and we wanted it too.”
At her side was her brother Louis Sico. He saw the meeting as a chance to make sense of his family’s personal loss.
“I’m so happy to see the families that ... his life has tremendous meaning [for],” Sico said. “He’s lived on through three people.”
Hensell's mother also handed out small books to each of the recipients of her son's organs, featuring pictures of him and details about his life.
“I just want you to know him a little bit like how we know him,” she said to the three men.
The combined families then sat down for dinner. As the table was slowly covered in food, Protzman, the recipient of Hensell’s heart, gave a short prayer and asked everyone at the table to say what they were thankful for.
Looking at Hensell's mother, he remembered when they first met and how they bonded over her loss.
“Mary Grace, I am thankful for you and all the things we have done together to remember Brian,” Protzman said. “My gift to you, is you can listen to Brian’s heart whenever you wish.”
With a small picture of her son — engraved with “a heartbeat lasts a mere second, but your son’s gift is eternal” — looking on from behind her, Mary Grace Hensell felt solace. By meeting the assembled recipients, she felt that they would always honor her son for the second chance he gave them.
“I just want them to remember Brian,” she said. “The worst thing for a mother is for your son to be forgotten.”