My mom didn’t know she was having twins until after she delivered my sister, Jenny. Ultrasounds weren't typically done in the late '70s, so there was no cause for concern when it appeared as though my 5'11" mom was simply having a big baby. But seven weeks before her due date, what she thought was a reaction to spicy food turned out to be a complicated labor and surprising delivery.
Jenny was born at just over 4 lbs and shortly after, through confusion and complications, I was discovered. They pulled me into the world at just over 3 lbs, not breathing, Apgar of 1, and feared that I was stillborn. As the doctors focused on rushing mom to the OR for a blood transfusion and checking Jenny’s vitals to ensure her well-being, an intern decided to give me a chance. With mouth-to-mouth and compressions, I was resuscitated and rushed to the NICU to rejoin my sister.
For many hours, mom did not know that I had, in fact, survived. She was still recovering herself, and doctors were unsure if I would remain stable. So when my dad brought her to the nursery and she saw her daughter Jennifer Michele alongside her identical twin, mom split our name and I became forever more, her miracle baby, Michele.
Once I was old enough to understand our birth story, I’ve held on to this thought – my drive to live, even as a tiny infant, was instinctively fueled by not wanting to leave my sister.
For our whole life, Jenny and I have been as close as we were while tucked away together growing simultaneously, waiting to be born. In many of our happiest times together, Jenny would tell me that she couldn’t imagine her life without me if I hadn’t made it. And we would both tear up at the thought. During times when we were being less kind, she would make this twisting motion with her hands (as though demonstrating how she tried to cut off my umbilical cord blood supply) resulting in me being a fraction of her size in utero. But that was always done with a wink. Even at our most annoyed, frustrated, and competitive times, we knew how good we had it. Because we had each other.
Growing up, Jenny was a star track athlete, even high-jumping with University of Oregon’s prestigious track team. I watched her attempt to jump over that bar a million times, with bated breath. She was at every one of my dance recitals clapping the loudest, and swore I was the best clarinet player in the band (not true.) She possessed the mental toughness to train for and complete two Ironman competitions.I cheered her on, so glad I wasn’t the one competing. We both loved to play basketball, and the swish sound of the ball going through the net was just as sweet no matter which one of us made the shot. She excelled at writing and learning languages. I loved speech-and-debate and student council. We each had our strengths and they complemented each other perfectly. As adults, we’ve supported each other in the same way – encouraging the other through moves, career changes, heartbreak, adventures.
So you get it. We have always been a unit. A two-for-one. The same loud laugh, the same food allergies, the same freckled shoulders and hair that’s hard to comb. We always felt a huge sense of gratitude that our birth wasn’t the end of the story of us.
It turns out though, that despite my dramatic entry into the world, I am not in fact the miracle twin. Jenny is.
On January 30, 2017, Jenny had her first baby. It was nothing dramatic like our birth. Just as easy as my two pregnancies and deliveries had been a few years prior. She had a full and healthy pregnancy, a long but relatively mundane labor, and she pushed for only 26 minutes before her beautiful son entered the world at 9 lbs with sparkly blue eyes and a gentleness he radiated from his first moments. Jenny and her husband basked in happiness for two hours as a family of three.
Then, Jenny felt a little short of breath so the doctor checked her oxygen levels, and although a bit low, cleared her to take a shower. Before she reached the bathroom, she collapsed in her husband’s arms having suffered a catastrophic pulmonary embolism. Her heart stopped. For a long time. Doctors were able to resuscitate her, just as they had done for me 38 years prior, but this time the result was horrifically different. Jenny remained on life support for two days before being declared brain dead. We baptized her baby with his hands on hers, said the most heart-wrenching good-byes, and let her go.
It is nearly impossible to reconcile the sweetness of her son’s arrival with the bitterness of him losing his mom hours later. Why did she leave this world at the happiest moment of her life? How could someone so young and healthy suffer such a fate? Why is my better half gone, while I am still here, only half-whole? It's very hard to accept that the embolism was truly just a very rare complication that nobody could have anticipated or prevented.
But here’s the miracle. Because she was an organ donor, Jenny’s death has resulted in five lives being saved. Her right kidney now lives in a 40-year-old male. Her left kidney and pancreas now lives in a 45-year-old female. Her liver now lives in a 37-year-old male. Her heart now lives in a 66-year-old male. Her lungs now live in a 67-year-old female. They have all an organ identical to one of mine.
These are five people, previously on the brink of death, after long suffering, who now have not just hope but the actual ability for a future. Five people who can continue to chase their dreams, have long-awaited adventures, enjoy their loved ones and experience the beauty of every-day life.Five people whose families and friends are not suffering loss but celebrating. In addition to the live-saving donations, dozens more people are benefiting from her donated tissues. The Jenny we knew and loved so dearly is no longer here. But she lives on.
Last week I had the honor of meeting Jeff Ganz, the man who received Jenny’s liver. He’s a dad, a husband, an athlete, an intelligent and kind person, who is clearly well loved. We are so similar in ordinary ways I could imagine our families’ having a joint BBQ or our kids meeting at school and organically becoming friends. As we hugged, I swear I could feel his newfound energy and hope for his future. It was profound. He couldn’t have changed what happened to Jenny, but she absolutely changed the outcome of his life.
In all honesty, organ donation does not ease the pain of Jenny being gone. But knowing that there is light for others in the darkness we face gives me an enormous amount of peace. My sister was the epitome of kindness and generosity in her everyday actions, so it makes perfect sense that she would offer this incredible gift as she left the world.
Death is always a hard conversation. But since we talked about everything, Jenny and I did numerous times discuss death and our dying wishes. To make it less difficult, we devised a hopeful plan that when we were very, very, very old we would hold hands together peacefully and just close our eyes and fade away. That way we would never have to exist without the other. As a back-up plan, Jenny and I had decided together we would elect to be organ donors if the rare opportunity came that our death could help someone else. When the surreal time actually did come at the hospital, and we were asked the question if Jenny’s organs could be donated, it was with certainty that the answer was yes. She had checked the box on her driver’s license, and I could confirm with conviction that it was what she would want.
Consider being an organ donor if you are not already. It’s incredibly simple to do. If you want more information about organ donation, or to register, check out: www.organdonor.gov or the incredible agency who helped us through our process: www.liveonny.org. Have the tough conversations with loved ones now, so if the horrible happens, you can make a peaceful decision. Do it in honor of a life well lived, as Jenny’s most certainly was.
Jenny’s husband is and will continue to be a wonderful father. I am helping him raise their son and our extended family and friends have created a village to insulate us all from the heaviness of Jenny’s loss. None of us are a replacement for her, but we are an extension of her and her baby will know all the ways in which his mom is a hero.
Jenny is the miracle twin. I am the lucky twin. I am lucky because I was born with a best friend by my side. I am lucky for all we experienced and shared in our 38 years together. I am lucky because I still have days ahead. She is with me always, especially in her sweet baby whose eyes are identical to ours. She is with me in the organ recipients whose lives she saved. She is with me. I will spend the rest of my life doing my best to live for both of us.