Son's death saves six lives, turns strangers into family

A groggy Don Van Zant glanced at the clock when he picked up the phone: 3:28 a.m.

Calls in the middle of the night generally carry the worst of news. But on Oct. 10, 2012, the voice on the other end was crisp, clear and concise.

“You need to be at the hospital in four hours…or we’ll give it to the next person on the list.”

A liver. For him. Finally.

He did the math: It was a two-hour drive from his North Lewisburg home to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center—a short drive for a life extension.

“I felt guilty because I was alive and I knew somebody else had died,” said Van Zant.

***

The day prior, Luci Grubb answered her phone in the middle of the night.

There had been an accident, her brother’s voice told her.

Her 26-year-old son Drew Mason and her step-son Michael Grubb, now 27, were headed south on Highway 35 in Kentucky when their vehicle went off the road and rolled.

“I knew it was severe, but I didn’t know the severity of it,” Grubb said in tears, as she recalled that Tuesday morning.

As both men were rushed by helicopter to UC Medical Center, Grubb and her family raced to the hospital from their New Liberty, Ky. home—52 miles away.

That hour felt like a lifetime.

“We were spilling our hearts and praying that [Drew] would be OK,” she said.

***

Van Zant and his wife, Julie, didn’t say much to each other as they drove south to the hospital.

“Julie was making phone calls as I was driving, and I was silently praying,” he said.

The then-63-year-old man said he was at ease as he thought of the new liver—and new life—that he would soon have.

“I wasn’t scared. I was ready for whatever the outcome was going to be. I just felt so confident,” he said.

That feeling was a relief for Van Zant, who up until that Wednesday morning, jolted every time the phone rang.

“You started to think, ‘Are they ever going to call?’” he said.

Doctors told him his liver would fail within two to five years. If his liver cancer started to spread, they wouldn’t be able to do a transplant at all.

“If you can’t get a transplant, you will die,” Van Zant said.

***
  The Grubb family filled the hospital waiting room when they arrived.

Grubb’s stepson was in surgery. He had shattered his neck and lost four of his fingers in the crash.

But doctors were no longer working to save Mason, her 26-year-old son.

“A nurse came out and told us they were getting ready for us to see him,” she said. “ I started thinking, ‘This is bad.’”

***

Van Zant and his wife Julie sat in the hospital waiting room when they arrived.

“The doctor came in that morning and said ‘I have a perfect liver for you,’ and he really knew what he was talking about. The size was perfect for me and everything about it was perfect,” said Van Zant. “It’s a 26-year-old liver."

***

Grubb sat, looking at the life-support machines as she held her son’s hand.

He was still. The machine was pumping oxygen into his lungs.

“It was heartbreaking. Seeing your child lying lifeless,” said Grubb. “Drew was not still. He was never still. I don’t even think he was still when he slept. He was constantly moving, constantly moving something, constantly on the go.”

Hours passed. Grubb had to decide if she would keep him hooked up to machines or watch her son die.

“I’m never going to get over it. My heart is always going to hurt. It’s always going to be broken,” she said.

She signed the papers to disconnect the machines.    

 
 

 

***

Van Zant asked the doctor about his new liver before going into surgery. 

"I was trying to figure out where the liver came from. I asked 'Was it far away?'"

“No,” the doctor said. “It’s right here at the hospital. The person is here.”

Two connected families—one grieving a tragic loss, and the other rejoicing new life because of that loss—were just feet away in the hospital waiting room.

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