News and Events
High School Student’s Tragic Death Gives New Life to a Perfect Stranger
by Jaclyn Tully
From left to right, Mike Murrie,
Gina MacQueen and Erin Calderon
Often we understand and appreciate something better by experiencing its absence. Light after prolonged darkness; warmth after being cold. Perhaps it is the same with life. We cherish life, but often take it for granted. When faced with its end, life suddenly takes on new meaning.
Those who knew 15 year-old Kimberly Kimble Gast might agree that she had a deeper understanding of life after the unexpected loss of her mother who died during routine surgery. Although she deeply mourned her mother’s passing, Kim fully embraced life. A cheerful, hopeful, fun-loving exceptional teenager, she was captain of her high school cheerleading team, a good student and a committed Christian. She was not about to miss out on the experiences and opportunities that life brought her.
Following the death of her mother, Kim returned to the home of Pepperdine Professor Mike Murrie and his wife, Jackie. Kim had lived previously with the Murrie family and she took comfort in their becoming her legal guardians. Jackie, who had lost her mother when she was young, spent many nights talking with Kim as they shared their feelings and experiences. And knowing that her mother wanted to donate her organs, Kim openly expressed her own desire to be an organ donor if she was ever able to do so.
Just two months following her mother’s death, Kim and three other high school students, and one parent, were on their way to a church retreat when their car was struck by a drunk driver traveling in the wrong lane. All of the passengers in the car were injured. Kim’s injuries were the most severe and she succumbed to her injuries the following day. OneLegacy, an organ donor network service, stepped in to fulfill Kim’s stated wish. The service began the search for possible recipients of Kim’s organs.
Gina MacQueen was a fairly typical 26 year-old. With a loving husband and two small children, she was always on the go, happy and full of life. But there was something ailing her. She often found herself short of breath and lethargic. Test after test revealed nothing and finally she was misdiagnosed with asthma. Gina, not wanting to believe that something far more serious was wrong with her, ignored any signs that she was ill. Gina and her doctors did not know at the time that she was suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) – an ultimately fatal disease which causes congestive heart failure.
Once properly diagnosed, Gina was put on medication and she was determined to continue on with her busy life and ignore the seriousness of her illness.
With her husband as the coach of her daughter’s baseball team, Gina traveled from baseball field to baseball field, putting on her game face and never letting on that she was suffering from a serious illness. And although her family talked about heart transplant as an option, Gina was not supportive of the idea.
Throughout her many hospital visits, Gina met a nurse who reshaped her view of receiving a heart, addressing all of her concerns. The woman explained that a donated heart was a gift, and that she had nothing to do with the donor’s death. The nurse reminded Gina that Gina’s children needed her. “Her words came in 2003 while I was in and out of ICU, I was going downhill and my heart was deteriorating very fast. It was inevitable, I was either not going to make my 35th birthday or I was going to have a heart transplant.”
Finally accepting this fact, Gina was put on the transplant list in July of 2003, nine months before her 35th birthday. All she could do was wait, knowing that the call could come at any moment. As an average sized, healthy person, she had a better than average shot at finding a matching donor.
At 6 a.m. on Sunday, September 21, Gina got the call. “We have a heart, we have a 15 year-old heart and it’s the perfect one.” With a house full of kids, and a baseball game scheduled, Gina’s Sunday plans quickly changed.
For the following four months after her surgery, Gina worked on a letter to send to the family of her donor. Not knowing anything about Kim, she struggled to find the words to say to the family that gave her life in the wake of the death of their loved one. But one day in January, she received a letter from Mike and Jackie Murrie who had reached out to Gina through OneLegacy, inquiring of how the heart recipient was getting along. Gina then learned that the Murries were in the process of adopting Kim, and that Kim had lost her mother only months before her own death. “The letter that was taking me months to write flowed perfectly in a half hour.”
After a few letters were passed back between the families, they met for the first time.
The tearful reunion brought about a lot of emotion, but it also brought about healing. It was important for the Murries as well as for Erin Calderon, Kim’s older sister, to see the life that was given. “I feel so blessed that my sister saved Gina’s children from losing their mother like we did.”
Today, Gina is a vibrant, healthy, happy mom. “My children have been given their mother back.” Back on the baseball fields, Gina’s smile is no longer hiding a weak failing body, but that of a strong, happy and very blessed mother and wife.
Kimberly Kimble Gast
The two families got a chance to come together for the holiday season as they helped decorate the Kodak/One Legacy float for the 2005 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. The float will carry Kim’s picture honoring her for her generous gift of life to not only Gina, but to three other organ recipients and their families.
“To be a part of Kim is such a blessing because she was an amazing young lady” said Gina. “To be able to have the gift of her heart and to feel so alive -- for my body to have accepted it so well is such an amazing blessing. I feel blessed to be alive, to be with my children and my husband and I now realize that life is a little more precious.”