In a new reality pilot, “Extreme Reunion,” that aired on Bravo this past month, family members met the recipients of the organs from their lost loved one, Kimberly Kimble Gast.
By Bridget Graham-Gungoren /Special to The Malibu Times
In a time when an organ donation decision needs to be made quickly, family members often times don’t know the wishes of a loved one. However, fifteen-year-old Kimberly Kimble Gast, who was hit and killed by a drunk driver in Sept. 2003, had made her wishes known before her unexpected death.
Five of her organs saved four lives.
Gast’s family members, who include Pepperdine University professor Michael Murrie and his wife, Jackie, who were in the process of obtaining legal guardianship of Gast when she died, and her sister Erin and husband Dennis Calderon, were able to meet the organ recipients during an event held and taped at Agoura High School this past spring for a television pilot.
It is rare for meetings between donor families and recipients to take place. Year to date, OneLegacy, the federally recognized procurement organization serving seven Southern California counties, has worked with 360 organ donors; they have facilitated only six first-time meetings-less than 2 percent.
The parties can meet only after a series of anonymous letter exchanges followed by an analysis on a case-by-case basis by one of the four California federally recognized organ procurement organizations.
Bryan Stewart, communication director for OneLegacy said, “Initially, anonymity is maintained because it is an emotional time for both sides. A family knows they did the right thing, but may choose to close that chapter-they may or may not want to be part of a new life. And there may be a certain amount of guilt from those that received the organs.”
If both sides decide to meet and are psychologically determined to be able, a meeting is facilitated.
“Meeting is a deeply and profoundly emotional experience. Both parties must be ready to embrace the relationship,” Stewart said.
Gast had been living with the Murries and their family for three months after the death of her mother. She had also previously lived with them during her seventh- and eighth-grade school years due to school-district conflicts. Captain of her junior varsity cheerleading team at Agoura High School, and starting her sophomore year, Gast was in a car struck by a driver with a .24 blood alcohol level, three times the legal limit, and killed by a blow to the temple.
“When we got the call and I was told she was in a coma,” her sister Erin Calderon said, “I knew she would die. My mom was in a coma and then she died.”
The families knew that Gast was disappointed her mother’s organs could not be donated. (Only 1 percent of deaths fall into organ donation eligibility, yet there are more than 18,000 people in California waiting for a donation.)
“We never questioned we would donate,” Calderon said. “My sister said that she wanted to help people.”
In December 2003, Murrie sent letters to Gast’s organ recipients, and over the following months, anonymous letters were exchanged. The Murries and Calderon met one of the four recipients, Gina MacQueen, in August last year.
“Meeting her made me feel like my sister blessed their family involuntarily through this,” Calderon said. “I was so grateful that Gina’s kids didn’t have to go through what me, my sister and brother went through losing our mom.”
Murrie concurred: “It turned out to be one of the greatest comforts of the whole process … that her death was not completely in vain. Others are enjoying life because of her.”
Eventually all the recipients wanted to meet-and in the interim, the group was approached to be part of the “Extreme Reunion” pilot. But network delays during the planning stages of the pilot delayed their meeting. They continued to wait for the show.
“I was holding out with hope for the story to be told to a broad audience,” Murrie said. “I was willing to wait under those circumstances. It is an important story; it’s a story of faith-how God makes good out of bad-and of organ donation awareness.”
The professor said that, outside of the donation process, it would have been great to show more of who Gast was.
“Most powerful was how resilient she was dealing with the problems with her mom’s illness and disabilities, the money problems and the stress,” Murrie said.
“The one thing I wish they showed more of,” Calderon said, “was how my sister died. She died because some idiot decided he could drink and drive-it’s not okay to have 20 beers and get into a car.”
But the whole process, she said is a testimony on how great people and God can be. The show took the viewers through all the emotions of each recipient’s story.
“I learned things I didn’t know about them and their conditions. I didn’t realize how sick one recipient really was,” Murrie said.
Calderon said she knew she had to be part of the pilot.
“My sister loved to be the center of attention,” she said with a laugh. “She was such a ham, so I knew she would have wanted to be part of the show.”
Both families said that meeting the other recipients, Sue Cox, Cynthia Janclaes and John Cervantes, was uplifting. In the pilot, each recipient talked of “feeling” Gast and they are grateful for the decision she made. Cervantes said he asked the doctor about slight feelings of sensations at his kidney, and was told it was normal to feel those. He looks at it as a reminder of her life.
“I bet that’s Kim, telling me she’s there,” he said.
During the show, Calderon was thanked for saving lives. But she says, “My sister saved lives. No one is a hero but Kim.”
After completion of filming, NBC decided not to air the pilot.
“I won’t even try to speculate about that,” Murrie said.
However, it aired on Bravo TV this past month. No word is available whether it will air again or continue to go forward as a series.
This September marked the two-year anniversary of Gast’s death and Murrie is arranging another reunion. Both he and Calderon said they would continue to maintain contact with the recipients.
“They have questions about Kim; I still have a lot I want to learn,” he said.
Additional information on organ donation can be found at www.onelegacy.org; Registration for Donors at www.donatelifecalifornia.org