When the price of a second chance is a life

Jacob Lenzini, the son of an organ donor, and Dr. Martin Hertl, a Rush organ transplant leader, discuss the importance of organ donation. (Lisa Schencker/Chicago Tribune)

How do you measure the cost of a second chance? What is it worth? What is the return on investment?

Some ROIs are easy: a dividend check every three months, a bond yield, a price to earnings ratio. But what about a human life? How does one measure the value of a second chance at life? In days or years perhaps? Income earned or professional accomplishments?


The cost of an organ transplant can run upward of a million dollars. And usually one human life.

In most cases that life is a young one. In the case of my son it was all of 19 precious years. Chris Gregory was a 2007 graduate of Mount Saint Joseph High School. He died 10 years ago last month. The night he died, surgeons from around the country descended on an operating room in New Orleans. They removed his heart, his lungs, his liver, his pancreas and both his kidneys and took those organs to hospitals from Shreveport to Jacksonville. Then, they were carefully transplanted into people desperately hoping for a second chance at life.


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The next day, as my wife and I boxed up Christopher's belongings and swept out his dorm room, five fortunate souls awoke to another day. Second chances bought and paid for by a perfectly healthy 19-year-old boy who, but for a mysterious brain aneurysm, would still be alive today. How does anyone balance the financial cost against the human? You can't, so don't try. The math does not work.

Some very famous people have benefited from organ transplants. Former Vice President Dick Cheney got a new heart in 2012. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz got one in 2015, and Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew in 2016.

Jorge Bacardi will tell you he is not famous, only his name is. He is my celebrity connection to organ donation. Mr. Bacardi, as in Bacardi rum, received my son's organs. He was dying when he received the call that he was a match for Chris' lungs.

Nic was dying too. Not as famous as Mr. Bacardi but every bit as deserving. Nic was literally sent home to die the morning Chris' death certificate was signed.

UMBC, Hopkins researchers work to extend the life of organs destined for transplantation.

And Mac was very near death, and so were Xavier and Carolyn. But they all got The Call, all because of a young man whose whole life was supposed to lay before him. Five people each got a second chance at life thanks not only to the generosity of an anonymous college freshman from suburban Maryland but to an entire life-saving enterprise that is the organ donation and transplantation community.

To express his gratitude, Jorge Bacardi funded the Gabriel House of Care on the Jacksonville campus of the Mayo Clinic. It offers an affordable home for transplant patients and their caregivers so that they can have a safe place to wait for their own second chances. But that's not all he did.

He wrote to us. He didn't have to, but he did. Then he visited us. And we have become close in the years since. He re-paid us in the only currency that matters: his friendship.

Ten years after our son's death we are grateful that Chris chose to register as an organ donor. His generosity set in motion a chain of events that led ultimately to the mending of my own broken heart — my own second chance. Not all donor parents are so fortunate. Not all have a Jorge or a Nic or a Xavier in their life.

House of Delegates unanimously passes two bills by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, whose life was saved by a liver transplant last year, on organ donations.

Our healing has been helped by the connections we made with all of Christopher's organ recipients, connections that would not have been possible without the miracle of organ donation. Each in their own way bought me precious time to accept the loss of my child. It would not have happened but for the dedicated professionals who are in the business of second chances.

If you are not registered as an organ donor, perhaps it's time to do so. Maybe second chances can be quantified after all.

For a man who, before his transplant, was slowly suffocating, it has added up to about 84 million breaths. For a couple desperately in love, like Nic and his wife Michelle, it has meant over 3,650 chances to wake up and say "I love you." And for me, as painful as they sometimes are, it is 10 Father's Days to reflect on the impact that one generous person can have on the world.

Eric Gregory is the author of "All My Tomorrows: A Story of Tragedy, Transplant and Hope," a book about his son's death and the lives the young man saved through organ donation. His email is ejg23@georgetown.edu.

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