In January 2013, Alicia Stillman's 19-year-old daughter, Emily, called home from college complaining of a headache. Thirty-six hours after asking her roommates to drive her to the hospital, Emily died of the only strain of meningitis not included in vaccinations in the U.S. at that time.
In the hours after Emily was admitted to the hospital, Stillman and her family traveled to be by her side. After treating the infection and performing a craniotomy to relieve swelling on her brain, doctors told Stillman her daughter was brain dead.
"They said, 'Well, Gift of Life (an organ donation program) will come talk to you,'" Stillman told TODAY Parents. "And I thought, 'Oh my God, that means she's dead...I hadn't put it together, and I remember screaming and falling to the floor."
Stillman is Jewish, and said she was unsure what her religion said about organ donation.
"We called our rabbi, and our rabbi said, 'It is the greatest mitzvah (good deed) you would ever be able to do in your life,'" Stillman recalled. "The Talmud says, 'Saving one life is like saving the entire world,' so I ran to the desk and said we wanted to donate Emily's organs."
Through organ donation, Emily saved five lives with six of her organs and helped countless more people through bone and tissue donation.
In the wake of her daughter's death, Stillman formed the Emily Stillman Foundation, advocating for both organ donation and vaccination. The Michigan mom has met nearly all of the donors who received her daughter's organs, including the man who received Emily's heart, Guy Mulligan, an endocrinologist and father of four who lives in Ohio.
"When Guy got Emily's heart, he had two little boys," said Stillman. "They came to Michigan to meet us ... and his wife, Amy, stands up and says, 'We have news — because he got Emily's heart and is healthy, I'm pregnant again.' So they had another little boy, Oliver ... and then three years ago, they had a little girl, Elly, and she is named after Emily."
Stillman and her family have maintained a relationship with the Mulligans in the years since meeting. And, each time they meet, Stillman takes time to listen to her daughter's heart beating in Mulligan's chest.
"The first time I met him, he walked into my house and I had him sit on my couch right where Emily would always sit. I probably climbed on top of him, and I felt and heard her heart," Stillman said. "Now, I just lay there ... it is so unbelievable."
Mulligan said he had cancer as a child, and learned as an adult that he was in heart failure due to one of the chemotherapy medications used to treat him. When his condition worsened in 2013, he was hospitalized and was on the transplant list for two weeks before receiving Emily's heart.
"I am overwhelmed with the opportunity to go on living, to be there for my wife and young children and to feel much better," Mulligan said. "While waiting for the transplant, I did have mixed emotions that I was hoping for the opportunity to receive a heart, which means I was hoping for someone to die. It still makes me uneasy to think about."
Mulligan has seen firsthand the grief losing Emily has caused the Stillman family.
"If it eases their pain even slightly to know how much it has been a blessing to me and my family, I'm happy to do what I can," he said. "I consider the Stillmans a part of our family now. Oliver and Elly would not be here if it was not for Emily's gift. Even though they lost their daughter, they've gained our family forever."
Stillman said seeing her daughter's death give life to so many is "truly the circle of life in its rawest form," adding that she, her husband, Michael, and her son and daughter, Karly, 28, and Zachary, 23, are forever changed by the organ donation experience.
"We can never pick our cards," Stillman said. "But you can learn to play the cards that you are dealt in a way that is healthier than you might have thought you would."