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Moments after meeting for the first time, left to right, Judy Briles, John Briles (lung recipient), John Whitehead (father of Sara Beth), Tresa Whitehead (mother of Sara Beth) and Nancy Hall (Sara Bethís grandmother) share family photos in the Vanderbilt Children's chapel prior to the Gift of Life event. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Donor family, recipient unite at Gift of Life event


A basket of 243 pink roses represents the number of organs donated from 60 patients who died at Vanderbilt University Hospital and Vanderbilt Children\'s Hospital in 2006. The other tables in the room were decorated with white roses symbolizing the 60 donors. (photo by Anne Rayner)

5/04/2007 - A basket of 243 pink roses represents the number of organs donated from 60 patients who died at Vanderbilt University Hospital and Vanderbilt Children\'s Hospital in 2006. The other tables in the room were decorated with white roses symbolizing the 60 donors. (photo by Anne Rayner)

The day before Sara Beth Whitehead's funeral, the visitation line snaked around and through the church's fellowship hall, the sanctuary, between the church and the gym, inside the gym and back out to the street.

It was more than one mile long.

More than 2,000 family, friends and community members attended the funeral of the lifelong Jackson, Tenn., resident who touched many in her 14 years. But it's the number of lives she impacted after her death that is so phenomenal.

The week of Sara Beth's death was a typical one – school, church league basketball games and church youth groups. Although not feeling well, she forged ahead with her daily routine, something her family says was part of her personality.

By Wednesday doctors diagnosed her with bronchitis. By Thursday she had worsened, was found unconscious on the bathroom floor, and was immediately taken to the hospital.

Her parents, John and Tresa Whitehead, were told she had spinal meningitis – a viral or bacterial infection of the delicate membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

She was flown to the Monroe Carell Jr Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. Hours later the family was told she was brain dead. In the early hours of Friday, March 11, the family met with Tennessee Donor Services, said their last goodbyes, and headed home to Jackson.

Sara Beth was one of 60 patients recognized at the annual Gift of Life Celebration held last week at Children's Hospital. Vanderbilt had a record number of 243 organs donated in 2006.

Sara Beth's parents, Tresa and John, not only spoke to the group attending the celebration, but also met with one of the recipients of Sara Beth's organs prior to the event.

Joe Briles, 64, of Franklin received the young athlete's lungs. Briles was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a chronic disease that causes inflammation and fibrosis of the lung tissue. Over time scarring surrounds the lungs making the tissue thicker and stiffer and making breathing more difficult. The lungs gradually lose their ability to provide oxygen to the rest of the body. Those with advanced IPF, who are non-responsive to other treatments, typically require transplantation.

“She gave me a second chance,” said Briles, who was joined at the celebration by Judy, his wife of 37 years. “I hated it at the time. She was only 14 years old. But I also knew there was a reason for everything, and I began praying for her family to overcome the pain of all of this.

“It's so hard to express yourself. There's hardly any word to rightly express something like this,” he said.

John Whitehead, Sara Beth's father, said his daughter had a “heart for giving. Her smile was contagious. She absolutely loved life.”

Tresa Whitehead, Sara Beth's mother, said the young girl's life crossed many paths. “It is through our loss that others have been blessed with much better quality of life.”

All who knew her described the Trinity Christian Academy freshman as gregarious.

“You knew she was in the room,” said John Whitehead, her 18-year-old brother. “She was so full of life, always smiling, very caring and would do anything for anyone without hesitation.”

Sara Beth was able to provide organs to six people – all males.

“I thought it was such a God thing,” said her mother. “When Sara Beth was little, around 6 years old, she asked me why God didn't make her a boy. She was such the tomboy. She played football and wanted to join the football team, but we wouldn't let her. When I saw that all of her organs went to males, I just chuckled. God really has a sense of humor.”

Sara Beth's parents still long to meet the others who received their daughter's organs. Tresa Whitehead said meeting Briles was an indication of the impact Sara Beth had on people.

“I just kept thinking – he's got Sara Beth's lungs. I want to hear him breathe. That thought played over and over in my head. It felt good to hug him, really good.”

According to statistics from Tennessee Donor Services (TDS) a record number of transplants, 660, were performed in Tennessee in 2006. Nearly 1,875 patients continue to wait.

Donate Life America, an umbrella organization that coordinates donation- related activities nationwide, has a goal of signing 100 million potential donors, one-third of the U.S. population, by 2008. TDS has set a goal of 1.4 million people and hopes to have its online registry available by the end of the summer to provide easier access to those wishing to become organ donors.

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