Bound Together By A Lifeline
Dematha's Wootten Meets Family Of Woman Whose Liver Saved Him
By Tyler Kepner
"I was watching with my in-laws, and we all just looked at each other," McCoy said. "It's got to be Rochelle's liver."
Ray McCoy knows it was unlikely his wife's path would ever have crossed Morgan Wootten's. But a year ago this week, it did.
Since then the second-winningest high school basketball coach in history has felt better -- physically and mentally -- than he has in years. Morgan Wootten has danced at his son's wedding, held another grandchild, won another 27 games at DeMatha High School.
Since then Ray McCoy's two children, Randall and her twin brother, Ray, have spent a year without their mom. They lost her to a brain aneurysm last July 9. Their father agonized over telling his 8-year-olds, speaking at length with his pastor. Finally, he sat them down in the living room of their Pasadena home and explained that their mother was gone. Young Ray wrapped his arms around big Ray, digging his fingernails into his dad's back. He didn't let go for 45 minutes.
Randall and Ray understand a little better now. Twelve days ago, they met Wootten. One day, their father says, they'll be able to fully appreciate that in dying, their mother gave a man back his life.
There are 10 blank days in Wootten's memory. They begin on July 7, 1996, when Wootten, feeling tired and, suddenly, terrible, entered a bathroom stall at his basketball camp at Mount St. Mary's College. It was lunchtime, and he was looking for a place to sit before campers arrived at 2:30. He collapsed upon entering the stall; two counselors came to his aid.
Wootten, then 65, was rushed to Gettysburg (Pa.) Hospital, near the camp in Emmitsburg, Md. That night, he was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where his family learned that doctors would not be able to stop Wootten's internal bleeding unless he received a new liver.
Wootten was suffering from primary biliary cirrhosis, a non-alcohol-related disease that causes the immune system to attack the liver. He had known of the condition for several years, but it had not been considered life-threatening. The urgency of the situation now made Wootten the highest priority in the Mid-Atlantic region to receive a new liver, and on July 10, he had transplant surgery.
In April 1996, when Wootten first went on the waiting list for a liver, Ray McCoy had his driver's license renewed. He was asked if he wanted to be an organ donor, and he figured, why not? He later mentioned this to Rochelle -- whose parents happened to be with her at the time -- and she thought it was a good idea, too. The next time she renewed her license, Rochelle said, she would also become an organ donor.
Rochelle McCoy never got to do that. After seeing a fireworks show with her family at Fort Smallwood Park in Pasadena July 5, she went to bed. At 4:23 a.m., Ray remembers, she began crying -- lightly, he said, so as not to wake him. Rochelle, 33, said she was having the worst headache of her life, and within five minutes began having seizures.
Ray called 911, and paramedics brought Rochelle to Anne Arundel Medical Center, where Ray worked in purchasing and Rochelle in accounting. After an emergency CAT scan there, she had surgery at University Hospital in Baltimore. But there was too much swelling and pressure on her brain, and she slipped into a coma. She died the morning of July 9.
Remembering what Rochelle had said about wanting to be an organ donor, her parents and Ray gave doctors permission to donate her organs. An Extension on Life
"I pulled through that bathroom door, and the next thing I remember is opening my eyes 10 days later," Wootten said Monday, one year after he fell unconscious. "I remember being somewhere strange and different. I realized I was in bed, and I said to my daughter, Carol, Get my things and pack -- I've got things to do, places to go.' And she just smiled because I hadn't been conscious in 10 days. She said, I don't think the doctors would approve.' "
Wootten soon realized he wasn't going anywhere -- he was too weak even to lift his hand. Paul Thuluvath, medical director of liver transplantation at Johns Hopkins, said Wootten suffered only "a minor episode of rejection," and on Aug. 9 he was released. By Nov. 8, he was on the sidelines at DeMatha's first practice, and again last season he worked wonders -- with the school's young-est team ever, Wootten went 27-7. His career record in 41 years at DeMatha stands at 1,122-170.
On the court, he says he hasn't changed much. The biggest difference is he now calls plays during games while sitting instead of standing. While his on-court results have stayed about the same, Wootten says he gets more out of life.
"The sunset's prettier, the food tastes better, the air is nicer," he says. "You gain an unbelievable appreciation of life and a very deep appreciation of how many wonderful people there are out there."
Wootten received more than 3,000 cards, he said, many from people he didn't know. But the identity of the stranger who saved his life was a mystery.
The family of an organ donor, Ray McCoy explained, receives only three details about the recipient: age, sex and geographic area. When he heard that Rochelle's liver had gone to a 65-year-old man from the Baltimore-Washington area, McCoy again suspected Morgan Wootten.
The only way for Wootten to attempt to learn the name of the donor was to send a letter to the Transplant Center in Baltimore. Wootten did that this spring, and the center forwarded the letter (with Wootten's name whited out) to the McCoys. Ray told the Center he wanted to meet the man, and that's when he found out the recipient was Wootten.
Wootten was the second recipient McCoy had heard from; the first was a diabetic woman who received Rochelle's pancreas and a kidney, who has since met the family. In all Rochelle helped seven people. McCoy wants his children to meet them all. "It's proof of how wonderful their mother was to give up something of herself to benefit other people," he said. "A part of her is still alive, and they know that."
On June 28, Ray and the twins, with Rochelle's parents and four other relatives, met Wootten and wife Kathy at the Transplant Center. There were hugs, thank yous and a two-hour conversation about "everything and anything," Ray said. The family brought pictures of Rochelle on her wedding day, and Wootten requested a copy.
"You could feel the love amongst all of them in the room," Wootten said. "The love they have for each other was awesome. You could just tell they were really beautiful people. I was tremendously impressed with how caring and sharing they are as a family. And the twins are a big part of their life -- a little lady and a little gentleman."
To the McCoys, Ray said, Wootten has become like part of the family. Randall and young Ray are soccer players, but if Ray ever wants to take up basketball, he's got a spot at Wootten's Mason Dixon Camp for Boys. "Morgan said whenever he's ready for basketball, just let him know," Ray said.
A Wonderful Person'
When Ray and Rochelle were married in 1985, they didn't take a honeymoon. That money was put aside for the house on Skipjack Place, the one with the flower baskets on the windows and a mother's touch inside. Rochelle did all the decorating, Ray said, and he's not about to change anything.
There are baseball gloves in the living room, a small soccer goal in the backyard. The wedding album is nearby, and Ray can finally watch home movies of his wife. After her death, he remembers calling her answering machine at work just to hear her voice. Finally, he asked the hospital to give him the tape so he'd stop calling. Daughter Randall, he says, has been the strong one.
McCoy wants his children to know who their mother was, and meeting recipients has helped. He hopes they will remember her, hopes they'll know why 850 people paid their respects at the funeral home last July, why some of those did so even when the line stretched out the door and into the rain.
Rochelle McCoy, Ray said, loved jogging, bowling, bingo, shopping -- "and laughing," added his son.
"She was just a wonderful person and a great mother," said Ray. "Everything that she did, she did for her family and the kids. They were her purpose in life. She was a very modest person. She stuck to herself and her family, really, but in a way she was outgoing. She touched people in a very short period of time."
Rochelle's birthday was May 13, two days after Mothers Day. Ray and the kids bought an ice cream cake -- her favorite -- and put one candle on top, for their first year without her.
She is still with them, of course. The family talks about her every day, and whenever Ray looks at his children, he sees his wife. And whenever he thinks about the new family friend at DeMatha High School, he thinks about her gift.
"I love that slogan, Don't take your organs to heaven -- heaven knows we need them here,' " Wootten says. "I've got to be very grateful that the McCoys thought that was a good slogan, too."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company