When the letter came, Kirk Watson and his wife just sat down and cried.
It told the story of Lance Lyngaas, who in death had given Watson a second chance at life through his organ donation. Written by Lyngaas’s wife, Jessica, the letter described a man who had long ago committed to do good in the world.
“When we got the letter from the donor’s family, my wife and I just sat there and cried, because I didn’t expect it,” Watson, who received a life-saving heart, liver and kidney transplant, told TODAY. “I didn’t expect it to impact me as much as it did. But it was just emotional realizing that this person gave the last gift to me that he could, and it saved my life.”
Organ recipients aren’t supposed to contact the families of donors - those are the rules.
But on rare occasions, when the donor family reaches out as Jessica Lyngaas did and the recipient is willing, institutions can give way. Even more rarely, families actually meet in person, as the Lyngaases and Watsons did in the TODAY studio.
For Watson, the meeting was emotional and exhilarating. “I knew I’d be excited, but I’m feeling emotions I’m not used to – or at least not used to exposing,” he told TODAY’s Ann Curry and the Lyngaases. “I feel giddy. It’s like an energy, like static electricity going through my body.”
Colorado Sherriff Kirk Watson realized something was wrong with him in the summer of 2002. In just a month he put on 30 pounds and began to suffer from crushing fatigue. Watson was given a grim diagnosis - familial amyloidosis – a disease in which the liver creates too much of a protein that then goes on to destroy the heart and the kidneys.
“The first cardiologist I talked to said … you need a transplant,” Watson remembers. “But don’t expect one. Go ahead and get your affairs in order.”
Watson was put on the donor list for a heart, liver and kidneys. And the wait began.
But then an accident occurred that would change everything for both the Lyngaases and Watsons.
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Lance Lyngaas, a 39-year-old farmer, was four-wheeling with his wife and three children when suddenly his vehicle crashed. Doctors later told the family that Lance had experienced a stroke. Just hours after the accident he was pronounced brain dead.
His wife of 16 years knew what she had to do.
“He always told me he wanted to be a donor,” Jessica Lyngaas told TODAY. “It was on his driver’s license. He was very strong. So his organs were good, very good. I really wanted to follow through with his wishes.”
One family’s tragedy quickly became another’s salvation. At the Mayo Clinic Transplant Center, doctors replaced Watson’s failing organs with Lance Lyngaas’s strong and vital ones.
“As soon as I woke up I could feel the difference in the heart,” Watson remembers. “It was pounding strong and I could feel it through my legs. The pulse, beating with the heart. I mean, it was a miracle.”
As time passed, Jessica Lyngaas started to wonder about the person who’d been given a second chance at life through her husband’s death. So she wrote a letter.
“My name is Jessica and I am Lance’s spouse of 16 years,” she began. “We reside on a farm, which is the home farm Lance grew up on. Lance was always a very giving person who never took rest. He enjoyed helping others, working hard, and making memories with his family.”
The Watsons wanted to meet the family who had given them so much and the Mayo Clinic put the families in touch with one another. After several phone calls the Watsons and the Lyngaases met for the first time on TODAY.
As soon as he saw the Lyngaas family, Kirk Watson jumped up and gave them all a bear hug. “I don’t know if I can say I feel him living in me,” he said. “But it’s a nice idea that he’s there watching over. And I’m hoping that all of us can become a lot closer and better friends and be a great influence on each other throughout life.”
For Lance’s son Levi, the meeting felt like a reunion of sorts.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” he told Curry. “He’s still alive kind of in a way.”
Rita Watson feels Lance’s presence, too, when she listens to her husband’s new heart.
“I lay my ear on his heart and listen to it,” she said. “It’s so much different than his other heart. And I just say thanks, Lance. Thanks a lot.”
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