After a teen's tragic death, one family is finding a sliver of peace, thanks to organ donation.
Emily Ramm, 16, of Poulsbo, Wash., died earlier this month when she slipped off a ladder. Despite their grief, her family told TODAY they were glad to learn that an Army veteran named Daniel Mendoza, who deployed twice to Iraq, received one of her kidneys.
In a way, that keeps Ramm alive, her aunt Tara Vasey told TODAY.
"Emily is gone, but not really gone," she said.
"We feel very lucky she went where she went," Vasey added. "Knowing she's with Daniel — he's an infantry guy, that's as tough as you get. I know she'll be safe with him."
Ramm died on August 13 after suffering numerous fractures and a brain injury in the fall. She and a friend had been stargazing at a construction site outside of an elementary school in Silverdale, Wash., when the teen, who would have been starting her junior year in high school, lost her footing on a ladder and fell 38 feet to the ground.
The next morning, Mendoza, 32, underwent the kidney transplant. He later guessed the kidney came from Ramm after piecing together details from his doctor and reading a news article about her death.
"I put two and two together and I was 99 percent sure it was her," Mendoza, who lives about an hour away in Frederickson, Wash., told TODAY.
He commented on an online news story and Vasey saw his message and got in touch. That was about two weeks ago, and they've spoken every day since then, she said. Mendoza also attended a memorial service on Saturday for Ramm, surprising the family.
“I feel a strong connection to them,” he said.
Vasey agrees: “It’s like we’re brother and sister now,” she said. “Our family is so tight with him.”
Ramm also donated her liver and other kidney. Her family has been in touch with the second kidney recipient and also hopes to track down the liver recipient. One day, Vasey wants to invite them all to a family reunion.
"You win and you lose in life, and we lost that day with Emily," she said. "But three people ... they got the win of their lives."
Ramm, who had six siblings, recently decided to be an organ donor when she got her driver's permit, her father John Ramm told TODAY.
"She went off on all these different reasons why," he said. "She thought it would help people."
He added that his daughter's decision, made spontaneously at the Department of Motor Vehicles, was representative of her personality.
"Emily was always helping somebody in some way or another," he said. "It was very important to her to make people smile."
The teen, who loved snowboarding and hiking, was going to start taking driving classes soon and was excited about her newfound freedom, her family said.
Her family has received an outpouring of support on social media and through a GoFundMe page.
Mendoza, who’s still recovering from the transplant, is grateful for the “second chance at life” Ramm gave him. He served 27 months in Iraq as an Army infantry soldier, and believes he became sick from the toxic fumes he ingested there.
“When I got back, my kidneys shut down,” he said. Mendoza had been waiting for a transplant for four and a half years.
“I hope she understands how grateful I am,” he said, applauding the teen for understanding the importance of organ donation at such a young age. “It changes people’s lives.”