Coincidence leads to remarkable transplant story

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Last month, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Heather May was following a family as they waited for the liver donation that would ensure their 13-month-old daughter’s survival. The infant’s mother, Liz Badger, struggled with the unavoidable fact that the donor her daughter so desperately needed would likely be somebody else’s dead child.

At the same time her co-worker, Erin Alberty, was reporting on a 12-year-old girl, Ashley Maynard, on life support. That child’s mother hoped she would slip away in such a manner that her organs could go on to save as many other children as possible.

That’s when, as the reporters watched from the sidelines, the two stories came together. It’s a deep look at transplants, donors and ethics made possible by luck and thorough reporting. For an inside-the-newsroom look at how it all came together, I e-mailed May. Here’s her response:

After reading Liz Badger’s blog, I wanted to write a story about one family’s experience waiting for a transplant, never imagining the story we would get.

I started following the Badger family Jan. 5 — which happened to be the day that Ashley was struck by a car, though of course we didn’t know that until later. So I was with Liz as she spoke about waiting for another child to die as Ashley was in the hospital.

I was with the Badgers during their weekly doctor’s appointment while Ashley was literally down the hall on the same floor in the hospital, again, unknown to us.

On Jan. 14: Liz called me to say they were headed to the hospital for the transplant. Hours later, Ashley’s father called our newsroom to tell Erin Alberty that his daughter was going to be taken off life support and would become an organ donor. Erin had not been following the family, but the paper had written a brief about Ashley having been hit a week earlier while waiting for the bus. Her father called to update the paper about her condition.

At that point, the paper figured that Ashley was going to be LuLu’s donor, but we couldn’t ethically link the two families. I considered attending the funeral with Liz and James with their permission. But after consulting with an ethicist at Poynter, the paper decided I shouldn’t go: We couldn’t tell Ashley’s family that the reason we wanted to attend was because we thought Ashley was likely LuLu’s donor and that we wanted to watch as the families met.

Later, I got permission from Camie to talk to Ashley’s doctors about Ashley’s care. I recreated the hospital and funeral scenes from interviews. I was there when Camie met LuLu for the first time.

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