LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) — A Little Rock woman's gift has brought two families together, and is taking them to the national spotlight.
Melissa Owen was “quite the person to share with others,” her father, Paul, said Tuesday. Melissa Owen died on Christmas Eve of 2014 from an aneurysm and a stroke, at the age of 38. Her parents knew that was had registered as an organ donor when she got her driver's license more than two decades before.
“And that's kind of the last thing we even thought about it, the last thing she thought about it,” Paul Owen said, “not knowing that, at a point in her life, she would suffer a stroke due to a brain aneurysm and pass.”
The Owens found out that Melissa was a match for more than one person on the national organ transplant waiting list. Federal law requires a one-year waiting period before donors and recipients may attempt to contact each other, in order to ensure that the organ functions properly after the transplant.
“Our daughter's heart recipient did write that first letter,” Owen said. “And it came, and my wife called me, and I was at work, and she was in tears. And she said, 'you won't believe this, but we just got this letter from Melissa's heart recipient, and more than that, she's right here in town.”
The recipient was a single mother named Yolanda Harshaw.
“Yolanda had just been on that waiting list just a day,” Owen said. “And she, in fact, received a call on Christmas Day saying, well, you know, are you ready? And she thought it was a merry Christmas-type call to her, and congratulations, you're being placed on the list. And they said, 'you need to come over, because it's time right now.'”
Simply hearing from Harshaw, Owen claimed, would have been rare enough. “Only one percent of the one percent who are able to donate ever meet their recipients,” he said. “And for us to be both right here in the same town, living less than two miles from each other, was pretty amazing.”
Owen said Harshaw has remained close with his family. They speak on the phone, keep in touch through Facebook and see each other every so often. This weekend, they will fly to Pasadena, California, where Harshaw will ride on the Donate Life float in the Tournament of Roses Parade.
“Your child, or those donors, are able to go ahead and speak for, speak to those out there that are in need,” Paul Owen said.
Owen and his wife helped build last year's float, and they will work on this year's edition, too.
"There are 600 people from across the United States that's part of that decorating process,” he said. “Just for the one float. But it's a big float, with a lot of flowers!”
Since his daughter's passing, Owen has become an advocate for organ donation. He said he speaks often on behalf of ARORA, a statewide agency to procure organs for those in need of transplants.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there are nearly 300 patients in Arkansas who are currently in need of an organ transplant. Nationally, there are more than 75,000 people on the active waiting list for a transplant, but on average, 20 of them die every day while waiting for a match.
Click here to register as an organ donor or to update your registration.