Correction: This story has been updated to say that Ryan Anderson is from Traverse City. An earlier version misstated his hometown.
Ann Arbor — Laurie Anderson wrote her first letter a month after her son died, hoping to meet the recipients of his organ donations. Almost a year after his death, she found closure hearing his heart beat in another’s chest.
Ryan Anderson of Traverse City was 33 when he died of a drug overdose Feb. 1. Through anonymous letters sent by Gift of Life, his family met the recipients of his heart and lungs on Saturday.
Ryan wasn’t on the organ donor registry but his family believes he would have wanted to save others. Five people received six of his organs. Bone and bone marrow also were donated.
“His heart was huge, he’d do anything for anyone ... he was generous to a fault,” said Laurie Anderson.
The Anderson family — his mother and her husband, Rick Wilkins; brother Eric Anderson and his girlfriend, Lyndsay Arbuckle; and his cousin Chris Burns were overcome with emotion after meeting Peter Archangel of Plymouth and Joel Renauer of Temperance at the Gift of Life Michigan center.
Archangel received Anderson’s heart and Renauer now breathes through Anderson’s lungs. His kidneys went to a 33-year-old woman and a 27-year-old male. A 48-year-old woman received his liver.
“I thought all week, what am I going to say to them? Thank you is just not enough,” said Archangel.
Archangel, 64, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in June 2005. He recently spent two weeks in the intensive care unit with his wife, Priscilla, praying for a miracle.
“They came in the room and started clapping around 1 a.m. after I had left and when I got that call, I knew ... it would be another 10-hour surgery we’d have to make it through,” said Priscilla Archangel, 56.
The Anderson family was able to meet and talk with the recipients of Ryan Anderson’s organs nearly a year after his death. Sarah Rahal / The Detroit News
Renauer, 66, was a factory worker for 40 years and was a certified scuba diver before doctors found scarring on his lungs. He spent five months on the waiting list with an oxygen tank by his side before his wife, Lora Renauer, awoke to a call. She said they had the bag partially packed, knowing they had only an hour to get to the hospital for his 14-hour surgery.
To join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry or for information, visit giftoflifemichigan.org.
'Someone else was saved because of my son'
Ryan Anderson’s mother Laurie found him unresponsive in bed on Jan. 30. She was unable to resuscitate him and quickly called an ambulance to Munson Hospital in Traverse City, where doctors said he overdosed on opioids.
While the recipients prepared for their surgeries, Ryan’s family reflected on how wonderful his life was. He was a graduate of Novi High School and received a degree in advertising from Michigan State University. He had a love for the culinary arts and worked in two four-star restaurants, including for chef Shawn Loving.
“Shawn would come out and tell me, ‘Your son has some natural raw talent.’ I asked, how do you know? and he said: ‘By the way he holds his knives, that is a talent you can’t teach,’ ” said Laurie Anderson. “He always said he wanted to own a five-star restaurant ... he catered his entire graduation party and it was beautiful.”
He and his older brother Eric Anderson, three years apart in age, were close. Eric was anxious before the recipients arrived on Saturday but cried with joy to feel his brother’s heart.
“I was just really nervous. We lost him unexpectedly and I've suppressed those feelings. Now they’re all coming up again. We miss him,” he said.
Laurie Anderson said it wasn’t until Ryan was officially brain dead that they remembered to donate his organs. She said it took two days to prepare his body, and that offered her family more time to say goodbye. Eric Anderson did not leave his brother’s side until the ambulance was ready to transfer him to an Ann Arbor hospital for the transplant.
“It was then Eric thought, ‘I’m not sending my brother to Ann Arbor without his MSU gear on.’ So, we wrapped him in his Spartans scarf and hat and all walked down the hallway together,” said Laurie Anderson.
“It was hard for me until I received a letter from Priscilla saying thank you and that when she found out there was a heart, she ran back to the hospital and her and Peter held each other until the sun came up. That’s when my grief turned into joy knowing someone else was saved because of my son.”
‘Meeting them filled a hole’
Joel Renauer said when they received the anonymous letter through Gift of Life saying Laurie Anderson wanted to meet him, he was so excited because he also was curious about who his donor was.
“I thought, I can’t believe they’re trying to heal so fast. I wasn’t told anything about him but I was anxious and excited. I took a deep breath through his lungs and wrote back,” said Renauer.
The process of sending letters through Gift of Life takes months. Laurie Anderson received a reply four months after her initial letter and the families met t 10 months later. Gift of Life officials said they give time for both families to heal and consider it. Some choose not to meet or “relive the grief they experienced,” but for many, it provides closure.
The two families exchanged gifts and stories and left with an extended connection, happy they were both given the opportunity. Laurie Anderson said she didn’t expect to cry hearing them come up the elevator and if she had the opportunity to go back in time, she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I tell my wife I have the heart of a 30-year-old but I still have 60-year-old legs,” said Archangel. “Meeting them filled a hole inside me I didn’t know was there.”