TROY, Mich. - As journalists, we are supposed to maintain a certain distance from the people and stories we cover. There are good reasons for that. It helps us remain objective.
It helps us cover horrifying news under terrible circumstances. It allows us to continue to do this job without being swallowed up by despair. But sometimes -- we fail miserably. We are people too. Sometimes, a story or a person grabs your heart and just won't let go. For me, that person was a little boy named Tommy Schomaker.
When we finally arrived at the hospital, the reality and risk of the situation hit us hard. As I watched sweet little Tommy wave goodbye to his parents as he headed into surgery, he took a piece of my heart right along with him.
Tommy made it through that surgery that day. We went back to visit him two days later. He was smiling in his dad's arms. That could have been the happy ending to our story. Most of the incredible people we meet on this job, we never see again. But not Tommy.
A year later, we were back for Tommy's kindergarten field day. When we interviewed Tommy's mom about his kindergarten graduation, I told my photographer John Pompeo, "Someday, we're going to Tommy's high school graduation."
It was a crazy thing to say. Tommy's health was still precarious, actually far more precarious than anyone knew then. That fact aside, who knew where the next twelve years would take me or John?
Over the past fourteen years, we have continued to follow Tommy's journey. Miracle after miracle has kept him alive. I assure you, it's not a word I use lightly.
In 2008, with Tommy's heart failing, we interviewed his parents as he waited for a heart transplant. Because of all of the treatments he had had over the years, he had built up antibodies that made the likelihood of him getting a heart extremely low. Tommy was so sick, his dad had to carry him up the stairs. I prayed a heart would come in time.
On June 3, 2009, Tommy received a new heart. It came from a little girl in Minnesota named Audrey. As I rejoiced for Tommy, I grieved for her family, imagining their agony.
Two years later, we were able to follow Tommy's family as they went to Minnesota to meet Audrey's parents and her two big brothers. They are every bit as incredible as you would imagine they must be.
That little 4-year-old boy is 18 now. And on June 4th, John and I went to Tommy's high school graduation. After the ceremony, Tommy's mom Colleen said, "It was everything I dreamed it would be." I would have to agree.
At Tommy's request, Audrey's mom Krista was his special guest at graduation. He wanted her to see that Audrey lives on in him.
That is the power of organ donation. Audrey will never get the chance to gradate from high school. That is a tragic reality none of us can change. But it was her heart that was pounding as Tommy walked across that stage for both of them. Ten years later, Tommy is still alive and preparing to head off to college because Audrey's family knew that she loved people and would want to help others. They chose to save Tommy and the two other people who received Audrey's organs that day.
If you are not on the organ donor registry, if you have not discussed organ donation with your family, I encourage you to watch Tommy's story and consider joining. There is truly no greater gift.
Tommy's family has always said, from the very beginning, that none of us know when our heart is going to stop. None of know how many heartbeats we have left. They have strived to live in the moment since the day Tommy was born. They never wanted to look back and realize they wasted the time they had with him worrying about the future. They admit, they didn't always succeed in not worrying, but they have put their trust in God's plan and their faith has carried them through.
When I share Tommy's story, I'm often asked if Tommy will need another heart someday. It's entirely possible. But it's also possible that you or I may need a new heart someday. If the past fourteen years of following Tommy have taught me anything, it's that anything is possible. But it's not worth worrying about tomorrow when we still have today.
I would like to thank Tommy and his family for allowing us to follow them for all of these years. Having a TV camera in your face during some of your most frightening, difficult, and joyous occasions is not easy. Having a TV camera following you around your high school graduation is not something most teenagers would allow! And the biggest thank you of all goes to Audrey's family. For them to allow us to share Audrey's story with all of you in their darkest hours was beyond generous and frankly, awe-inspiring.
Both families have shared their stories in the hopes that their journeys will give hope to others and encourage more people to join the organ donor registry. That is my hope too.
I must also thank Vanessa Ogletree. She edited those first Tommy stories some 14 years ago, and she too is still at Local 4 and beautifully edited Tommy's graduation story.
I realize this sounds like the end of the story, but as I sat at Tommy's graduation ceremony, it occured to me that commencement means "the beginning, the start." Graduation is the closing of one chapter and the opening of another. Tommy's next chapter is just beginning. God willing, I plan to be here to write about it.
To join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry, click here.
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