One Life Lost, Another Saved: In Rare Moment, Lung Transplant Recipient Meets Donor's Mother

PHOTO: After Diana Rodriguezs son Adrian was killed, Lyndsey McLaughlin, right, who was suffering from cystic fibrosis, received his lungs.
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Lyndsey McLaughlin and Diana Rodriguez, two New York women from different worlds, never imagined their paths would cross, let alone that a life-changing event would connect them for the rest of their lives.

But two years ago, Lyndsey, then 26, struggled for every breath she took, and it's thanks to Diana that she is alive today.

In 2011, Lyndsey was working at a hedge fund in New York and had everything she ever wanted, except for one thing: A future.

Lyndsey was dying.

"I'm 26 years old," she said at the time. "I should be out every Friday and Saturday night. I should be at the bars having a couple of drinks, not worrying about how many medicines I'm going to have to take the next day."

At age 2, Lyndsey was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease which causes mucus to build up in the lungs.

"Growing up, I just did chest physical therapy every day, which started out with my parents clapping on [my back] every day," she said. "My lung capacity by the time I was 18, 19 years old was to the point where they were telling me I was going to need a lung transplant."

Lyndsey joined the New York organ donor list -- and waited. All the while, her condition worsened.

"I couldn't really do much of anything," she said. "I could really finally tell I was sick. I still wouldn't admit it. I still wouldn't say I wouldn't feel well. I just couldn't do things."

She spent more than seven months on the organ donor waiting list for new lungs, and was deteriorating fast

Dr. Joshua Sonett, the chief of thoracic surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, treated Lyndsey. In 2011, when he looked at her x-rays, Dr. Sonett said he could see that Lyndsey's right lung was hugely inflated and that over time, she had lost function in part of her left lung, which contained scar tissue.

"Just imagine is I took 80 percent of your lung away, how you would function," Dr. Sonett said. "Lyndsey is going to die is she doesn't get her lung soon."

Lyndsey's mother Donna McLaughlin knew her daughter might not see another birthday.

"I used to go to her apartment every day when she really got sick… and I would walk to work crying," she said. "Knowing that my daughter was dying before my eyes and there wasn't a thing I could do about it."

But then, on the morning of April 3, 2011, Lyndsey got the call that a pair of lungs was available and she needed to come to the hospital immediately to see if she would be a match. She checked into the New York Presbyterian.

"I was never scared," she said. "I know that sounds unlikely and weird but I was never scared because I knew I needed it."

Finally, after seven months on the donor list, Lyndsey will have her new lungs. After a complicated, intense surgery, Lyndsey began her recovery. Within a few months, she was embracing her new life -- even took up surfing.

But a question continued to haunt her -- who was the person who's death gave her life? By law, organ donors must remain anonymous, so all Lyndsey knew of her donor was an 18-year-old man from New York.

"I have to remind myself… that he would have passed away whether or not I was getting his lungs," she said. "I had no control over that situation. They only thing that I can really do is live my life to the extent that I'm showing him honor."

It's highly unusual for organ donor recipients to find out who their donors were, but Lyndsey contacted the Organ donor network and discovered the donor's family was as eager to connect as she was. One donor, she learned, had his own, remarkable story.

Adrian Rodriguez, was an 18-year-old high school senior, a charmer with a passion for cooking.

PHOTO: Adrian Rodriguez was just 18 years old when he fell and was struck by a subway train in New York City. His mother had to make the difficult decision to donate his organs.
Courtesy Diana Rodriguez
PHOTO: Adrian Rodriguez was just 18 years old when he fell and was struck by a subway train in New York City. His mother had to make the difficult decision to donate his organs.

Diana Rodriguez's only son, Adrian, thrived at the Marta Valle High School on Manhattan's Lower East Side, which was a long commute from his home in the Bronx but had the courses he wanted. Mimi Fortunato was the school principal when Adrian attended and has fond memories of him.

"The first time I met Adrian, he bounced into my office with a tray of pastries in hand and beautiful cucumber salad in the other and said, 'good morning, Miss Mimi, I am Chef Adrian,' and I thought he was the culinary arts teacher," she said.

Adrian went on to create his own cooking show, which he recorded in the school's teaching kitchen. Dexter Hannibal, the school's college advisor helped Adrian apply for scholarships to culinary schools.

"When you saw him, he was always in his chef outfit, in black pants, always," he said.

Life was good. Adrian had his eye on the future and was committed to his dream of becoming a professional chef. But on April 1, 2011, tragedy struck. His mother said Adrian left for school wearing new shoes that day. It's believed Adrian slipped and fell on the subway platform as the train pulled in, and the train clipped his head. He was rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where his mother said she waited six hours to see him.

"[The doctor] told me that he was in bad condition," Diana said. "I was in panic mode, don't know what to say, what to think."

When Diana was finally taken to her son's bedside, she said he was tethered by tubes. Adrian had a fractured skull and was on a ventilator. At 10 p.m. on April 1, 2011, Adrian was declared brain dead. He was gone, but his organs were still intact.

"When the folks from the New York Organ Donor Network approached Adrian's mother, I was there," Mimi Fortunato said. "At first she didn't quite fully understand, I mean, how could that be, he's not, he's not here, how could you take his heart. He needs it."

"I did say, 'leave me alone,'" Diana said. "I wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to take my son's body and just go."

But in the end, Diana made the difficult decision to agree to donate Adrian's organs. Lyndsey received his lungs.

"The two things I could think of was how lucky we were and how unfortunate she was," Lyndsey's mother, Donna said. "As a mother, I just can't imagine how she felt that day, and we were just so grateful and somehow, I just hope she knew how grateful we were that her son saved my daughter's life."

At an extraordinary meeting, Lyndsey and her family got to thank Diana, face-to-face.

"It's crazy for me to think that she can literally put her hands here," Lyndsey, touching her chest, "and she can feel it's him breathing. It's him breathing and I'm breathing with him."

Lyndsey and Adrian's mother now share a special bond that can never be broken, as do three other people who received Adrian's heart, pancreas and liver.

"I think about him every day," Lyndsey said. "When I went to the Great Barrier Reef and I was snorkeling… [and thinking] 'can you believe we're here, I can't believe we're doing this. I'm here because you did this for me.'"

"I thank him all the time," she added.

For more information about how to register as an organ, tissue and eye donor, visit Donate Life website HERE, and for more information about the New York Organ Donor Network, visit their website HERE.

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