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Organ donor, ailing woman share a crucial link

When a cop died after drinking too much water on a training ride, his donated liver saved a 61-year-old woman with liver disease. And, by sheer fate, the woman’s niece, was able to bring the two families together.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For each of them that grueling, tragic, miracle-touched week, the intersection of life and death began with a single call.

5:20 p.m. Tuesday: In Massachusetts, the telephone rang minutes after Ken and Jeanne McBride got home from work. A D.C. police officer was on the line. Their elder son, an aspiring bike patrolman, had been taken to the hospital after falling ill on a training ride. His condition was unclear, the officer said; they should fly to Washington. The McBrides packed fast and caught the last shuttle out of Boston.

1 a.m. Thursday: An exhausted Annettor Murphy was asleep at her sister's house in Southern Maryland, just back from another hospital stay, another reprieve until her body again started failing. It was her sister who heard the phone and got the news; within seconds, she was upstairs, screaming ecstatically. They had to drive back to Washington, she told Murphy. A liver was finally there for her.

One family, deep in mourning. The other, veering between hope and fear. They were strangers to each other and likely to remain so, because the system that recovers and distributes human organs zealously guards the confidentiality of all involved. Most recipients learn little about the people who have given them a second chance at living.

This time would have been no different -- except for a third call.

7 a.m. Thursday: D.C. police Sgt. Kimberly Taylor picked up the phone at the 1st Police District station in Southwest Washington. For hours, she had held emotion in check while others around her grieved; James Craig McBride had been one of their own, a popular presence in 1D. But now, Taylor's cousin was on the line. Her aunt, he said, was back at Georgetown University Hospital and about to get a transplant. The liver was coming from a donor at Washington Hospital Center.

"What did you say?" Taylor demanded, instantly making the connection. She began shaking and ran into her commander's office.

"McBride . . . " she sobbed, barely able to get her words out. "McBride's saved my auntie's life."

By afternoon, she and the officer's parents would be embracing.

Rare and deadly syndrome
Annettor Murphy, 61, no longer remembers her first symptoms. They surfaced more than 11 years ago, landing her in hospital after hospital, with doctor after doctor unsure of what was wrong. By the time surgeon Lynt Johnson met her, she was critically ill, on a ventilator and suffering liver and kidney failure. Johnson expected her to die.

Murphy's medical problems, it turned out, stemmed from a rare syndrome that causes blood clots to form in the veins of the liver. Although she pulled through the first emergency, myriad complications followed, including her body's relentless, debilitating accumulation of fluid. So extreme was the buildup that every few weeks for the next decade, Murphy would go to a hospital to have as much as 3-1/2 gallons of fluid drained from her abdomen. She struggled on until pain and disability forced her to quit her job as a D.C. correctional officer. Her only salvation, Johnson believed, would be a transplant.

Murphy was put on the waiting list Feb. 11, 1999. She stayed on it 6-1/2 years -- nearly 600 days longer than the average wait for a liver in this country.

During those years, Craig McBride graduated from high school near Boston. He entered American University and received a degree in political science. He joined the D.C. police force -- bent on making a difference, on making the streets of his adopted city safer -- and started law school at night. He got engaged. He was named 1D's rookie cop of the year.

The circumstances of his last days were widely reported after his death. On Aug. 8, the 25-year-old officer began the weeklong course, intent on adding bike skills to his beat in the crime-ridden Sursum Corda housing cooperative. The next morning, he tackled a 12-mile ride. Under warm, sunny skies, McBride overcompensated as he trained and unknowingly drank too much water. That over-hydration triggered a sodium imbalance in his bloodstream that in turn caused massive swelling of the brain.

In the early afternoon of Aug. 10, with his mother and father beside him and devastated colleagues crowding the hallway, the young officer was declared brain-dead at Washington Hospital Center. His parents never questioned his choice to be an organ donor.

"We said, in essence, 'Whatever can be used for good, you have our blessing,' " Ken McBride recalled.

What was used: corneas, kidneys and lungs, his pancreas and small intestine, his heart, skin, other tissue and, not least, his liver. More than 300 people across the Washington region were waiting that day for a new liver. About 1,700 needed a new kidney, with dozens more on the lists for other organs. "My wife and I didn't hesitate," McBride said.

Johnson was reached late that night. Although he saw a transplant as Murphy's sole hope, Georgetown's chief of transplant surgery was not hopeful. He expected her operation to be an extremely difficult procedure, perhaps one of the toughest of the hundreds he had done. Everything needed to be optimal for success. And his patient and her family had to understand: She still might die before it was over.

Johnson decided to proceed despite lingering misgivings. "Sometimes you get this feeling that fate just happens," he said. "This was one of those times."

He had no way of knowing how much fate would intervene.

Making a connection
Murphy was in surgery as her son and niece walked into the District hotel where the McBrides were staying. They all hugged and cried. Her family, Taylor said, would be forever grateful.

The McBrides had agreed to the contact through intermediaries. Taylor had been desperate to meet them before the couple returned to Massachusetts. "This was a heroic person," she told them, talking about their son. She talked, too, about her "Aunt Netta" and the pain she had long endured.

It all seemed "appropriate," Ken McBride thought. "Very natural." One good thing that could come out of a horrible situation. "Craig would have liked it," his father said.

During the next month, they reconnected several times.

Taylor drove the officer's parents to the 1st District station, took them in the roll-call room, showed them his locker. After the funeral, the McBrides stopped by the hospital to see Murphy. Her recovery remained tenuous -- she had almost died during the 12-hour surgery, her heart nearly stopping -- and she was not conscious. "We're members of the family," Ken McBride told a nurse in intensive care, because that seemed the most appropriate thing to say.

In late August, when a memorial service was held at Craig McBride's high school, Taylor was there in uniform to give a eulogy. She wanted everyone in his home town to know "how great he was, how great he was to my family. I could not sleep," she explained recently, "until it was done."

Murphy has only heard about those encounters, of course. She was not discharged from the hospital until Sept. 11, her sister driving her home on a warm Sunday evening. Midweek, strength slowly returning, she rested on her sofa and reflected on the strange twists of life that saved her own. She is a statuesque woman whose surgeon marvels at her steadfast humor and humanity. Murphy deflects praise. "I just prayed and kept the faith," she said.

As soon as she is able to travel, her niece will take her to Massachusetts to meet the McBrides. To say she wants to express her gratitude is an understatement. She already knows what she wants to tell them:

"Your son lives on."