Nancy Suarez Lee waited anxiously at Dallas Love Field baggage claim Thursday morning.
She had never met the family arriving on Southwest Airlines flight 1643, but the North Richland Hills woman felt like she knew them. They had communicated for months through telephone calls, text messages and Facebook.
Sixteen months earlier, Lee, 54, underwent a life-saving double-lung transplant at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The lungs, she learned more than a year later, came from Brittany Saucier, a 26-year-old wife and mother who died in an accident in Gulfport, Miss.
Thursday, Saucier's mother, younger sister and godmother were traveling from Mississippi to meet Lee and her family for the first time.
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"I've been waiting for this day for a long time," Lee said. "I am about to meet the mother of my lungs. So that's just really kind of an amazing thing."
On the airplane, Ellen DuVernay, Saucier's mother, experienced similar feelings. The day before she left for North Texas, she had said she was excited about the meeting but also was preparing for the emotions it would stir for both of them.
"I am sure we will both do some crying," DuVernay said. "But I feel like I am about to meet family."
Lee was born with Hermansky-Pudlack Syndrome, a genetic, metabolic disorder that causes albinism and can lead to pulmonary fibrosis, which causes the lungs to become damaged or scarred and stop functioning properly.
In 2010, her lungs started to fail. Lee, who worked in human resources and has three adult children and a stepson, lost her energy and required oxygen. Simply showering was difficult and walking up a set of stairs out of the question.
By June 2011, she was on the waiting list for new lungs at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Her husband Dave and her children stayed upbeat in her presence. But Lee was considered the matriarch of the family and, without her, her husband worried they could fall apart.
Lee was still on the waiting list on Sept. 20, 2011. On that day, in Gulfport, Miss., DuVernay, Saucier and Saucier's 4-year-old daughter Mackenzie were at DuVernay's home on a golf course in their subdivision.
Saucier had long brown hair, green eyes and, her mother said, a beautiful smile. She worked for an after-school care program at an elementary school. She was best friends with her sister, Kortney, 19. She had been married for six years, and she loved to paint with her daughter.
“She was just wonderful,” DuVernay said. “She was a fantastic mom, and her life revolved around that child.”
That day, DuVernay, Saucier and Mackenzie rode a golf cart to the clubhouse to pick up sandwiches for lunch. On the slow drive home, Saucier slipped from the back of the cart, striking her head on the street. She had a seizure — an image that still gives DuVernay nightmares — and was rushed to the hospital.
When it was clear that Saucier would not survive, DuVernay and her husband Larry learned that their daughter was an organ donor.
“She had always been so generous to others,” DuVernay said. “And she was that way until the day she died.”
‘I thank God every day’
Hours later, surgeons were transplanting Saucier’s lungs into Lee. The young woman’s liver went to a father in Georgia. Her kidneys went to two men in Mississippi.
Lee knew nothing about her donor and transplant officials suggest that, if organ recipients want to contact a donor’s family, they wait at least a year.
Patricia Kaiser, a clinical nurse specialist the UT Southwestern Heart and Lung Transplant Clinic, said she encourages organ recipients to write letters to the families of organ donors. Often, discussing the subject is emotional for patients.
“I tell them very directly that this person did not die because they needed an organ,” she said. “But this is a way to give thanks to the family of someone who has given them a gift of life.”
As the year passed, Lee composed letters in her head. But the words felt insufficient, too small to express her gratitude. In Mississippi, however, DuVernay was writing a letter of her own. She wanted to tell the recipients about her daughter and wish them well.
Lee got the letter in October. At dinner that night, 13 relatives joined her at New York Pizza Pasta in Valley Ranch. She read silently, tears in her eyes, sharing snippets aloud.
“She was a female ... Her name was Brittany ... She had a little girl,” she told them.
By the end, everyone at the table was in tears.
Lee wrote back almost immediately. This time, she found the words.
I have always felt sad that someone had to lose their life and a family lose a loved one in order for me to live. But I was especially struck by your letter because Brittany was so young, because she left Mackenzie behind, and because your description of your relationship with her reminds me so much of my relationship with my daughters.
I thank God every day, as I know that I would not be here today were it not for your selfless gift.
‘I’m so glad you’re here’
At the airport, Lee’s daughter Jessica, 24, spotted their guests arriving from their gate. Near the same age as Saucier when she died, Jessica and Kortney, like their mothers, built a friendship through text messages and Facebook.
The families rushed toward each other. No words were spoken. Lee and DuVernay wrapped themselves in a long, tearful hug. Jessica and Kortney did the same.
Saucier’s godmother, Cheryl Yeargin, told a story from the airplane, how the family told a flight attendant why they were visiting. Soon, the captain made an announcement in the cabin asking other passengers to stay seated and let the DuVernays deplane first.
When they landed, a man in the front row stood up and a flight attendant politely asked him to wait, she said.
Both families, wiping tears, laughed.
“I’m overwhelmed,” DuVernay said.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Lee told her.
A full weekend together awaited them. Lee planned a reception so all her family and friends could meet the DuVernays, followed by a dinner. Arms still around one another, the two families turned and walked away together.