Celebrating a life, honoring one lost

Gift: Adequate words are hard to find as a transplant recipient meets the mother of the heart donor.

February 15, 2003|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

When the Rev. Anthony Rohlsen heard the call - "They're here!" - he and his family drew together, huddling in a small circle in the back of a West Baltimore church. They didn't know quite what to do or say yesterday afternoon, only that they'd wanted so long to meet the woman outside.

She had just arrived from the Eastern Shore, carrying nothing but a box wrapped in red paper. She didn't know what to expect either.

But when Carol Butler saw the family and then spotted Rohlsen, 31, standing so strong and healthy, every move seemed natural.

"Hi," Rohlsen said, wrapping her in his arms. She held on tightly, weeping on the shoulder of the stranger who held a piece of her daughter, TaKia Marie Butler. The 15-year-old died a little over a year ago after a house fire, and her mother decided to donate her organs. Rohlsen got her heart.

It is rare for such families to meet. But since the night in November 2001 on which their destinies collided, both had wanted it. Then, Thursday morning, a family advocate who had been working with them from the Transplant Resource Center of Maryland had an idea: Why not Valentine's Day?

The families said yes.

At dawn yesterday, Rohlsen woke up, feeling nervous, his heart fluttering and jumping. He wished he could ask about the teen-ager and how she died, but he didn't know if it was right. And no words seemed adequate to express his gratitude.

"How do you say thank you to someone who gave you the best gift of your life?" said Rohlsen, an associate elder and software engineer who is married with an 8-year-old son.

In Salisbury, Carol Butler, 35, slept just a few hours after finishing her overnight shift at a Delaware poultry plant. For months, she had wondered: What did the man who had her daughter's heart look like? What did he do for a living?

The family advocate, Christine Galumbeck, rode with Butler to Baltimore. On the way, they pulled into a cemetery and drove to the back corner where TaKia is buried.

Within a few hours, they pulled up to the Beth-el Temple Church of Christ, where Butler met and was hugged by Rohlsen's wife, 33-year-old Annette, and other relatives.

"God bless you. God bless you," said Cheryl Thomas, clasping Butler in her arms. "I am his mother."

Rohlsen, who lives in Laurel, had never been sick until April 2001, when he contracted a virus that damaged his heart. Doctors installed a defibrillator, put him on intravenous medicines and told him he would die without a transplant.

TaKia Butler was a high school freshman who loved Tweety Bird and dreamed of dating basketball star Allen Iverson. Nicknamed Tinker, she was the youngest of Butler's four children. She was at her boyfriend's house in late October 2001, when a fire broke out in the living room.

Later, investigators would find her with hands burned. They believe she tried to pull her boyfriend, 13-year-old Marcus Handy, to safety. Rescue workers found her beside the door, her body covering 16-month-old Avier Terrell, Handy's nephew. They had to pry her arms open to get to him.

TaKia's boyfriend and the toddler died the next day, but she lived for a week at the University of Maryland Medical Center before physicians declared her brain dead. Within a half-hour, her mother agreed to organ donation.

TaKia's kidneys, liver and corneas, as well as bones, veins and arteries, were given to other patients. And when physicians examined her heart, they said it was the strongest they'd seen in a teen-ager in a long time.

"I was kind of hoping another kid her age would get it," Butler told the Rohlsens yesterday, her hands wound together tightly in her lap. "But I was moved that you had a son."

Rohlsen looked at her.

"I'm doing extremely well," he said. He and his wife are having a second baby this summer, and if it is a girl, he told Butler, her middle name will be TaKia.

"Valentine's Day is never going to be the same," he said.

"You are part of our family," Annette Rohlsen added. "We're going to come visit."

Later, Butler brought out the wrapped red box and carefully handed it to Rohlsen. Inside was a silver frame with a picture of TaKia and three inscriptions: her name, the dates of her birth and death, and a single sentence: "May you have a long, healthy life."

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