April 11, 2014 at 4:25 PM ET
Kristina Chesterman never came close to checking off even a handful of items on her bucket list before she died. She was 21 when an alleged drunk driver struck her, and then drove off, as she biked home from a long day of studying with fellow nursing students.
But shortly after her death last September, her wish to “save someone’s life” got fulfilled multiple times over. Kristina’s decision to be an organ donor has helped save the lives of five people so far.
Now, her family and other loved ones have set out to fulfill as many other items on Kristina’s bucket as possible. Like ride in a hot-air balloon. Or on a camel. Run through a poppy field. Tour Niagara Falls. Go skydiving.
“Some of the things we couldn’t do, like fall in love," said her mother, Sandra Chesterman, 49, of Livemore, Calif. "Kristina wanted to get married and have children. But run through a poppy field? We figured we would do what we could. Somebody already went parachuting and they took her picture with her when she went.”
Kristina, who was a junior at California State University, also wanted to learn how to fly a plane. This weekend, Chesterman and her husband will bring their daughter's ashes with them on a flight lesson they will get from a pilot who heard about their family’s story.
Chesterman found Kristina’s bucket list while she and her husband were cleaning out their daughter’s apartment after she passed away. She said she found the list folded and tucked inside a makeup bag.
“I can’t explain how I felt when I found that. And one of the things on the bucket list was ‘save a life’ and that struck us because she ended up saving five, not including the help she’ll provide with tissue and bone donation that will come later,” Chesterman said. “She also said she wanted to be remembered as ‘the smiley girl.’ And she was. She was always smiling. The glass was always half full with her. She saw the good in everything.”
The outpouring of support from her friends, who have offered to fulfill Kristina's wish list, has helped ease the grieving process for Chesterman, her husband and their other children. So has being in contact or actually meeting four of the five recipients of her daughter’s organs.
Kristina’s liver went to two people, a 9-month-old infant nearby and a 55-year-old man in San Francisco. A family friend received one of Kristina’s kidneys. The other kidney and Kristina’s pancreas went to an unidentified man.
A fifth organ, Kristina’s heart, went to a 64-year-old woman whom Chesterman met for the first time last month. Susan Vieira, who believed she was the recipient, reached out to Chesterman through a Facebook page dedicated to Kristina after she realized their connection.
“Susan reached out at a time when I needed it the most,” Chesterman said. “You never get over the loss of losing a child, and I was probably at about my lowest point when I heard from Susan, and that has helped me deal with it.”
The two met several weeks ago, the day after Vieira reached out to her online.
"I thought it would help in the healing process," Vieira said. "I thought it would put some closure on Sandra’s grief."
Although her hospital never told her about her heart donor, Vieira said she connected the timing of Kristina's death with her Sept. 26 transplant. She also found another connection between herself and Kristina: Vieira is a retired public health nurse.
"When I walked away from the visit, I was 99.9 percent sure that this is the heart," she said.
Chesterman said she was certain, too, despite having official confirmation. She was simply told that Kristina's heart went to a 64-year-old from the South Bay at Standard Hospital.
“Instantly I felt a connection. I felt comforted right away,” she said. "I am 100 percent [sure] she has Kristina's heart."
Vieira said she hopes to continue traveling internationally once she is able to, helping to see some of the sights that Kristina would have wanted to visit. She also plans to stay in touch with the family.
Chesterman said she hopes her daughter’s story will raise awareness about organ donation so people can see “how many lives one person can change just by signing a piece of payer saying, ‘yes’ I’ll be a donor.’”
She also hopes to bring attention to the devastating impact of drunk driving. The man accused of killing Kristina, 20-year-old Riley Dean Hoover, now faces felony DUI and hit-and-run charges.
Chesterman said she still deals with overwhelming grief. "There are still some days I just don’t get out of bed because it’s so unbelievably hard," she said. Meeting with Vieira and others who were aided by Kristina has helped her through the pain.
Chesterman said she plans to learn more about Doctors Without Borders and other non-profit and non-governmental organizations Kristina hoped to help once she graduated from college with her nursing degree.
“I want to see the world the way Kristina saw it,” she said. “That’s what losing her has done to me. I want to see the good in everybody and live like she did.”
Kristina's bucket list: