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Face to face with a ‘miracle’

(Week of May 26, 2011)

Photo: Organ transplant recipient Jennifer Benjamin, center, meets face-to-face for the first time with Shawn and Laura Smith, parents of 15-year-old Taylor Smith whose pancreas and kidney Benjamin received a year and a half ago.

Silence came too soon in Shawn and Laura Smith’s grief, when friends stopped consoling them, and bosses wanted results again.

They can no longer grasp the passage of time since their son, 15-year-old Taylor, was hit on his bike and killed a year and a half ago. “It seems like forever,” says Laura Smith.

Nearly every Sunday, a call from Vero Beach briefly breaks the silence.

The voice that makes contact is that of Jennifer Benjamin, a transplant recipient and pulsing proof of Taylor’s life who now carries two of his life-giving organs.

Benjamin last week finally met the couple who allowed her to have their child’s kidney and pancreas in a rare double-organ transplant – rarer still because it was Benjamin’s second such transplant.

In an instant, in a Miami hospital, the organs cured her diabetes and meant she would never have to undergo dialysis again.

In the unchartered friendship that has evolved since then, Benjamin, 46, Laura Smith, 42, and Shawn Smith, 45, seem to have fulfilled a prayer as Taylor lay dying.

“I said, ‘Just let him be a miracle. He’d be the perfect miracle,” recalls Laura Smith. “Well, he turned out to be three miracles. He let three women live.”

Last week, the Smiths drove from the Panhandle to Vero Beach, meeting for the first time not only Benjamin but her parents.

Until now, Benjamin’s contact has been only with Laura. “My understanding of her pain is that she got the raw end of the deal,” she says. “Here I am: I’ve got life, and there she is, dealing with her 15-year-old boy who was the light of her life having died in order for me to live.”

Along with their surviving son Ryan, now 20, Shawn Smith says the family seems headed in all directions, “as if we’ve all got our backs toward one another,” trying individually to find a way to move forward, but without the family unity they once shared for support.

“It’s hard all around,” says Shawn Smith. “Nobody’s got an easy deal here.”

For Benjamin, her role has been as sounding board to the grief the family is experiencing. And that has not been easy.

“All these folks kind of have guilt issues for benefitting from someone else’s misfortune,” says Shawn Smith. “But they didn’t cause any of this. I say, if you feel guilty, you need to stop. I don’t want you to ever feel guilty. To us, this is the only thing that makes sense, the only thing that feels right.”

Nationally 28,000 people received transplants last year from 14,500 donors. Organizations like the Winter Park-based Translife offer an anonymous letter exchange between donor and recipient. But increasingly, just as with adoptions, the culture is becoming more open to face-to-face contact.

Only five years ago, a meeting of donor family and recipient was rare enough to warrant a segment on “The Today Show.” Yet in the past month alone, two families on Vero’s barrier island experienced such a meeting. Guidelines for such relationships are few, if they exist at all.

In late April, a heart recipient in Orlando met the parents and siblings of donor Shannon Britt Miller, the 35-year-old shoe designer and wife of real estate agent Van Starling. He has since moved to North Carolina with their daughters. Miller died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The other organ recipient is Benjamin, daughter of Milton and Tina Benjamin. Milton Benjamin, publisher of Vero Beach 32963, reached out to the Smith family in the days after Jennifer’s surgery, as he pieced together a story of the transplant for this paper.

It was soon after Jennifer Benjamin’s first transplant in 1996 that she came to live with her parents to Vero.

“I was in a wheelchair,” she recalls. “I figured it would be nicer to convalesce at a beach house than in D.C.” where she had lived previously.

Thirteen years later, her new organs having failed, the second double-transplant took place at the University of Miami Transplant Center.  When Milton Benjamin first contacted the donor family, it was Shawn Smith’s first day back at work and Laura Smith’s first day alone at home.

“I was trying to do my cleaning, crying the whole time,” recalls Laura Smith. “When he told me he was Jennifer’s father, it was like a little bit of light in this horrible cloud of a day. I thought, I am actually speaking to the family of the person that Taylor saved.”

The first day Jennifer Benjamin herself called the Smiths, it had been an even worse day for them. They had sat through another day of the trial of the 25-year-old man who had killed their son.

Testimony showed he had seven drinks at a Hooters bar in the middle of the afternoon, then drove his car into Taylor and a friend as they rode their bikes in a bike lane. With Taylor gravely injured, the driver left the boys in the street while he hid in the woods for two hours calling friends on his cell phone.

“We were both home, sitting on the couch, and neither of us was saying anything. The house was completely silent. The phone rang – and it was Jennifer,” recalls Shawn Smith.

“Another black cloud went away,” says Laura Smith. “We were smiling and laughing, so glad to get that phone call.”

A year and a half later, Jennifer Benjamin and Laura Smith are alike in their goal of trying to make the most of the small comforts of life’s routines, glad to be able to manage them.

“Friends call and ask, ‘So what did you do today?’ “says Benjamin. “I’m able to accomplish daily chores. To be able to do daily things, to me, is so exciting because I feel good.”

As for Laura Smith, whose family downsized to a condo since Taylor’s death, she is keeping busy with her usual housework, making the nightly dinner for her husband and son Ryan, who lives with them while going to college. “It’s exhausting but you just keep going.”

When she talks to Benjamin on the phone, though, she shares her pain freely. “She cries, and she’s very honest. She doesn’t hold back if she’s having a bad day.”

For Benjamin, who says she hasn’t felt this well since she was 14, there is still obvious guilt.

“The only thing I struggle with is that a young boy had to die so tragically, and me – who’s been sick all my adult life -- I’m the one that gets to live. Nobody likes to hear that, but that’s the way I feel.”

Smith says the transplant surgeons for Benjamin and the other recipients have all marveled at how well Taylor’s organs performed. It is a comfort to the Smiths, who want to believe their family’s healthy habits – good food, fresh air and lots of exercise – contributed to success of the transplants.

“I was out of the ICU within four days,” says Benjamin. “My blood work is perfect. I always make a point of telling Laura, ‘Taylor’s kicking ass.’ ”

Smith laughs on hearing that. “She always tells me, ‘You’ll never get rid of me.’”