Organ donors give the gift of life

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Lynn Finley of Columbia and Jessalyn Taylor of Sumter share the gift of life in the most unusual way.

When Finley's son, Jesse, got his driver's license at the age of 16, he agreed to be an organ donor, and the box was appropriately checked on his new license. Later that same day, he struck up a lengthy conversation with his mom about what it really meant to be a donor.

About three years later on July 31, 2008, a drunk driver struck Jesse, who was riding his bicycle at the time. After being rushed to the hospital where doctors tried to save his life, Jesse died the next day.

At the same time in Sumter, Florida-native Taylor was settling in her new home with her husband, who had recently been stationed here as an airman at Shaw Air Force Base. But many of Taylor's thoughts and prayers were directed back home to Florida, where her father, Henry Harris, was near death with an enlarged heart. Harris had already been forced to retire early because his heart and other organs were shutting down. His heart was only functioning at 15 percent.

Later that same day, Taylor's family got word her father was finally going to receive a new heart. The heart transplant was performed at the University of Florida Health Hospital in Gainesville, Florida. All the family knew at the time was the donor was a teenage trauma victim.

It turned out to be Jesse's heart, and Harris is alive and well today - nine years later.

On Wednesday, Finley and Taylor shared their stories at the City Centre downtown. The two were honored guests at an event to raise awareness for organ donation hosted by Palmetto Health Tuomey, The Tuomey Foundation and the City of Sumter.

Recalling her long conversation with her son that day about being an organ donor when he was 16, Finley said Wednesday she believes everything happens for a reason.

"I believe that was Jesse's way of saying, 'This is what I want to do,'" Finley said. "I am so thankful to him for giving the gift of life because over that weekend (of his death), he saved seven lives."

Jesse's heart saved Harris' life and his other organs have saved six others' lives, according to his mother.

A few years ago, Finley was able to meet Harris and his family at the University of Florida hospital. It was an emotional visit, where Finley even had the opportunity to listen to her son's heartbeat in Harris with a stethoscope. She considers Harris, his daughter and other members of their family to be her family now. She also travels as a volunteer and shares her passion for organ donation with Sharing Hope SC. The nonprofit foundation is dedicated to advancing organ and tissue donation in South Carolina.

"Jesse had given to me a purpose in his life, and now he has given me a purpose in his death," Finley said. "I get to meet wonderful people, and I have a passion in my life for organ donation and I get to volunteer as much as possible with organizations. Even though I lost Jesse, my family has grown tremendously (through the Harris family). It does my heart good to know that they are in my family and even though they never met Jesse here on Earth, they love him just as much as I do."

Today, Taylor, 31, still lives in Sumter with her husband, who is now out of the Air Force. They have one son. She completed her associate degree in nursing at Central Carolina Technical College, and is currently a registered nurse at Sumter Family Health Center.

She describes the gift of Jesse's heart to be a blessing to her father, restoring peace, faith and life to him when death seemed so imminent.

"Jesse gave my father a second chance to live longer, and to make the most of whatever time we have left together," Taylor said Wednesday.

Taylor went on to say that in honor of Jesse and his mother, her entire family has decided to be organ donors.

Mark Johnson, media relations coordinator with Sharing Hope SC, was also in attendance Wednesday. He said individuals - no matter their age or medical background - can sign up to be organ donors. He said the vast majority of people become organ donors with their driver's license at the state Department of Motor Vehicles, but people may also do it online at www.donatelifesc.org in South Carolina or www.registerme.org across the U.S.