Maryland transplant recipient plays a role in 'The 5th Quarter'

Casey Towers, then 20 and the mother of two babies, spent January and February of 2006 at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. She prayed for a gift that was a matter of life and death: a healthy heart to replace her broken one. She got it within weeks, on her daughter's first birthday.

She knew it had belonged to a person from Georgia who was even younger than her. She later learned it came from Luke Abbate, a top athlete at the Carey Harrison High School in Marietta — and the younger brother of Jon Abbate, a star linebacker for Wake Forest University. Luke was a victim of reckless driving. He had accepted a ride from a fellow student who crashed into an embankment at 90 mph.

Four years later — during Easter season, 2010 — Towers met Luke's parents, Steven and Maryanne Abbate, in a conference room in Baltimore. That's when they told her that she became a character in "The 5th Quarter," a film about the aftermath of Luke's death. Towers had come up to the city from her home in Waldorf. She and her parents watched the film while Steven and Maryanne played with her kids in the hallway. "I had never thought of someone based on me being in a movie," Towers recalled this week. "I was a little taken aback by it."

Many films combine sports with inspirational messages — the ad campaign for "The 5th Quarter" compares it to "The Blind Side." ("The 5th Quarter" opens today at the Rotunda Cinemas, where "The Blind Side" had a successful run.) But few movies of any kind have made such a direct appeal for organ donation, which saved Towers' life. "I was very happy they made a movie about it," she said, "and so is my whole family."

Five patients received organs from Luke Abbate. But only one is characterized in the movie — a young mother with a weak heart, like Towers at age 20.

Her medical problems began when she was 33 weeks' pregnant with her second child. "I had slipped and fallen on my stomach," she remembered, "but the doctors checked me out and said everything was OK." Two days later, she began gasping for breath. Doctors diagnosed her with prepartum cardiomyopathy. She ended up at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she delivered her son a month early. The boy was healthy, his mother weary. She thought she had merely strained her neck giving birth. But after a few days at home, she found herself unable to breathe again.

The doctors at University of Maryland Medical Center, her next big stop, didn't know exactly what was happening. But one thing was clear — having two babies exactly 10 months apart had put a burden on her heart. Towers couldn't survive without constant IV medication. "So they put me at the top of the heart-transplant list."

"The 5th Quarter" depicts Luke's death as a test of faith for the Abbates. Towers confronted the same question: What had she done to deserve this?

"All of a sudden, I was basically dying and in need of a very important organ. And all of that was brought on because of my pregnancies being close together. Why was this happening to me?"

She had to wait just one month for her transplant — and she wrote her thanks to the Abbates while she was still in recovery. "I didn't receive a letter back for two years." The family was going through tumultuous times. As depicted in the film, Jon dedicated his gridiron heroics to Luke's memory — and helped lead Wake Forest to a championship season.

Organ-donation protocol dictated that Towers could connect with the Abbates only through go-betweens. "At first, I couldn't include my last name or address — and they weren't allowed to, either." But Towers tried to express in her initial letter "that I would love to meet the donor's family, and that I knew they are the reason I am still alive and able to be a mom."

A year ago, Maryanne and Steven flew to Baltimore to meet Towers, her children and her parents. The Abbates carried family pictures and the first cut of the movie. "We spent the day asking questions and answering," Towers said, "me telling my story, them telling theirs. It was a very emotional day."

Towers is now 25; her daughter, Kaylee, is 6 and her son, Kristopher, is 5. She recently earned certification as a medical assistant and plans to go back to college. She intends to buy the film on DVD. "I want my kids to watch it as soon as they're old enough," she said — and not just because it dramatizes the need for organ donors. "I've had friends who've died from driving recklessly. This film can teach my kids why they should drive safely."