The Greatest Gift
FOR A SHORT TIME, AMY LOCICERO seemed to have all she wanted in life. An aspiring artist, she had studied design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Her parents and younger sister in Hawthorne, N.J., were loving and supportive. And on July 18, 1992, she married Gary Federici, 26, a florist turned car salesman whom she had met at a fundamentalist Christian church in New York City.
But two weeks after the wedding, Amy’s strong religious beliefs were sorely tested. Gary was found to have pancreatic and liver cancer and died three months later. For a year, Amy was paralyzed by grief. She took solace in her church and told friends that she wanted to die in order to be with Gary in the hereafter. Then in early 1993, she began to pull herself out of her depression. She found a job as a corporate interior designer at MTV in Manhattan and rented a house with two women friends in nearby Mineola, on Long Island. “Amy had begun to see a future for herself,” recalls her mother, Arlene, 54.
As it happened, she had no future. On Dec. 7 a brooding passenger, Jamaican immigrant Colin Ferguson, 35, boarded the same Long Island Railroad car as Amy during the evening’s rush hour; 37 minutes out of Pennsylvania Station, he went on a deadly rampage, shooting 19 people, including the young designer. The bullet tore through her neck, severing a carotid artery and leaving her virtually no chance of survival.
In the days that followed, her parents had to make two decisions. The first was heart wrenching: whether to remove their oldest daughter from a life-support system. The second was whether to donate Amy’s organs—her heart, kidneys and liver—to patients who needed them. That decision was almost easy by comparison. Their beloved, dark-eyed child, so modern in her brightly colored clothes and witty hats, was also deeply old-fashioned in her unshakable belief in God and the goodness of people. “Knowing Amy and her faith,” says Arlene, a high school English teacher, “it seemed like the only thing to do.”
At 10:13 a.m. on Dec. 12, Amy Federici was allowed to die quietly at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola. Almost immediately doctors from the transplant program at Stonybrook Health Science Center on Long Island began matching her organs to a list of waiting recipients—a process that is routinely conducted behind a veil of confidentiality. But her case was far from routine, and the publicity it received may help alleviate a chronic shortage of organs. “This has done more for organ donations than you could possibly imagine,” says Dr. David Conti, head of transplant surgery at Albany Medical College, who performed the transplant of one of Amy’s kidneys. “And it’s particularly fitting because people were looking for something to come of such a tragedy. It not only comforted the Locicero family, it comforted everyone who tried to imagine why this happened.”
The first of Amy’s organs went to Theresa Caravella, 60, a housewife and mother of seven from Islip, N.Y. She received a phone call two hours before Amy died. A heart was becoming available. Did Caravella want it? It had been two years to the day since she had been told that she had cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that had been caused by a virus. Twice before, out of fear, she had said no to a new heart, but this lime the offer came on the anniversary of her unfortunate diagnosis—and she accepted. “I thought it was a good omen,” she says. Around 3 p.m. she checked into Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. “One grandchild’s christening was that morning, one daughter was coming home with a new baby,” she explains, “and me getting ready for a transplant. It was a busy day.” It was especially busy for someone who, by this time, was so ill that she spent most of her time lying down. Instead of the party that the family had planned to celebrate the christening, says Caravella, “everyone came to the hospital.”
That same afternoon, Jerry Bradley, 40, a carpenter, was going over building plans at his home in Glens Fails, N.Y., when the phone rang. Il was a coordinator from the Albany Medical College Organ Procurement Organization informing him that the hospital had a kidney for him. Was he interested? “The decision look half a second,” says Bradley, a diabetic whose kidneys had stopped working in 1990 after he suffered congestive heart failure. For the past year and a half, he had been on dialysis three limes a week, four hours a session. “I said, ‘You bet.’ Normally anything like this I would discuss with my wife. But I felt this was the only thing to do.” Within three hours, Bradley and his wife, Belinda, 40, a mental-health therapist, had packed and driven the 55 miles to Albany Medical Center.
Meanwhile in Dallas, the beeper worn by widow Betty Janko, 50, was sounding. She had been given it in July 1992 and answered eight calls in the last year and a half—all of them wrong numbers. But this time it was Donna Hamaker from the Dallas Transplant Institute, and Janko got the message she had been waiting for since 1988, when the polycystic kidney disease she inherited from her father worsened. “I’ll never forget those words,” recalls Janko. “She said, ‘We’ve got a kidney for you, and it’s a perfect match.’ I started to cry.”
Like the other recipients, Janko was not told whose organ she was receiving, only that it was coming from New York. But that proved to be enough of a clue. Janko recalled seeing the Lociceros announcing the donation of Amy’s organs on the TV news. “I made a mental note of it,” she says. “I know New York’s got 8 million people, but what are the odds that il wasn’t her? I thought how unreal this was. Here I was, born in New York, and I was going to get my new life from New York.”
Janko wasn’t alone in figuring out that Amy Federici was the well spring of her good fortune. While Bradley was undergoing four hours of transplant surgery, his wife Belinda read in the New York Post that Amy’s parents had donated her organs. “I got this wild feeling, like a sixth sense,” she says. “It was like, ‘Oh, God, that’s it.’ ” Two days later, his hunch confirmed by the doctors, Bradley held a press conference to thank Amy. On Dec. 22 he appeared on Good Morning America and spoke with the Lociceros by satellite. Later they chatted for 45 minutes by phone. Two days after Christmas, the family sent him a plastic collectible horse they had bought for Amy and a card reading, “Dear Jerry. Jesus Lives! Amy Lives! Jerry lives! Love, Arlene, Jack and Carrie [Amy’s 21-year-old sister].”
As for Caravella, she at first had no inkling that Amy was her donor. However the staff of Mount Sinai, fearing that the press would soon find out and descend upon the hospital, refused to connect callers asking for her. When Caravella awoke from surgery and asked, “Whose heart did I get?” they told her. She was tremendously moved. “I feel I have this beautiful young girl’s heart in my body, and I am proud to have it,” she says. “I will pray for her soul as long as I live.”
Frank Taft, administrative director of the Organ Procurement Organization of Albany Medical College, has been struck by the tender feelings that each of the recipients has felt for Amy—and most especially by the warm relationship that has developed between Bradley and the Lociceros. Until now, he explains, doctors had feared the legal and emotional complications that could possibly occur if they identified the parties to an organ transplant. So as an informal policy, they kept that information secret. “After this, I may well introduce more donors and recipients,” says Taft, adding that organ donations have jumped in the Albany area as a result of the publicity surrounding Amy Federici. Last year, he says, up until Amy’s death, there were a total of 30 (out of some 16,000 nationally). Yet in the three weeks following her parents’ announcement, there were eight offers, six of which resulted in successful transplants. “Amy has saved lives,” says Dr. Conti. “Not just the three we know of, but others we’ll never know about.”
In fact not all of Amy’s organ recipients survived. A woman from New York City who got Amy’s liver died a few weeks after the transplant. But for the others, the changes in their lives have been striking. Caravella, for instance, at one point could barely climb steps or make a cup of coffee without tiring. “All my daughters had a bed for me,” she says. “Sleepy-time gal—that was my story.” Now Caravella spends her days cooking sumptuous Italian meals for her children and seven grandchildren. Best of all, she says, she will be able to dance at her daughter Kathy’s wedding in July.
The two kidney recipients are equally happy—and no longer tied to dialysis machines. “The quality of my life is so much greater,” says Jerry Bradley, who is planning a New Mexico holiday that was once unthinkable, “and I’m probably going to live longer and have more time to spend with my wife.” (They chose not to have children for fear of passing on Jerry’s diabetes.) A former card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, Bradley has also begun to rethink his position on gun control. “My wife thinks all guns should be put in a crate and buried,” he says, and since the LIRR massacre that took Amy’s life, “I’m coming around.”
Meanwhile, Janko’s recovery has been even more remarkable. Having been on dialysis since 1988, she says that for much of that time, “basically I just existed. I’d chew three bites and stop because I was too exhausted to eat.” In 1992 she became so weak that she had to quit her job as a supervisor in a jewelry firm. Today, little more than three months after surgery at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas, she lakes vigorous walks, does volunteer work for the National Kidney Foundation and is strong enough to devise and test recipes for a kidney-patient cookbook she is writing. On her list of “somedays” is white-water rafting. “It’s amazing,” she says, “how, after so many years of feeling bad, you can feel so good down to your bones. Now you can’t stop me. I’m running all over the place.”
The transplant recipients have discovered spiritual benefits as well. Says Bradley: “Wanting to be a good person has always been in me, but now I want to be better because of Amy. If she had been able to keep living, she would have done good things in this world. The least I can do is continue that.” Janko agrees, and while her illness prevents her from being an organ donor, she plans to bequeath her body to science in Amy’s honor. Since Caravella’s transplant, all her children have signed donor cards. “This family definitely feels that’s the way to go,” she says.
All thanks, says Janko, to Amy, their “donor angel.” Janko might well have been speaking for her fellow recipients too when, in her letter to the Lociceros, she wrote, “Please know that your daughter has given at least one person a new life, and a small part of her lives on in me.”
MARIA EFTIMIADES in Dallas, Glens Falls, Hawthorne and on Long Island