Macy Stevens, a 15-year-old Marian High sophomore, was reluctant to know much about the donor of her heart.
Grateful to him and his family, definitely. But for five years since the transplant, it has bothered her that she has lived and he did not.
As she explained: “I always felt, like — really, kind of guilty.”
But then came a transformative journey. Macy would meet her donor's mother, who showered her with love — and in the presence of a church congregation asked Macy for one simple favor, one last personal connection to the woman's beloved son.
And that made all the difference.
Macy's parents, Jordan and Karen Stevens, had announced this fall that the family would take a pre-Thanksgiving trip, a 16-hour drive. They would meet the mother of the boy whose heart beats in Macy's chest.
Macy didn't want to go. She asked her mom and dad why they would schedule something like this without checking with her.
But she dutifully joined them, with her two younger sisters. Along the way, according to her dad, Macy braced for the meeting and for learning more about her donor, whose name was Cameron.
“People will start crying, and I don't like people crying,” she said. “I think stories about him will make me feel worse.”
On Nov. 23, a Saturday, the Stevens family pulled up to a Baptist church in Gulfport, Miss. Once inside, her dad said, Macy seemed calm and content.
A woman in a colorful dress eventually rose, scanned the congregation and said, “Where's Macy? Where is she?”
Macy waved to the woman, Debra King, Cameron's mother. She approached Macy and tearfully embraced her, saying she loved her.
Karen Stevens got up and hugged the mother whose son had died, from a brain aneurysm at age 11. Some called out, “Praise the Lord!”
What followed was a celebration of Cameron's life. Nov. 25 would have been his 16th birthday.
“The energy in the place was incredible,” Macy's dad wrote on the Caring Bridge website. “From the singing to the speakers to the choir and the uplifting spirit. ... A boys group performed a dance to a song; this was the group Cameron had been a part of.”
Cameron had grown up healthy, scoring touchdowns in youth football. He loved basketball and baseball, too.
Macy, on the other hand, had endured health problems since the womb. An ultrasound at 20 weeks' gestation detected that her heart had three chambers instead of four.
She had heart surgery when she was 3 weeks old and again at 6 months, plus a third when she was 2 years old. Her name became known because of news coverage of fundraisers.
Medication helped her for several years, but her heart began to fail.
At age 10, after a four-month wait on the transplant list, she received a new heart at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Through the organization Donate Life Alabama, which facilitated the transplant, Macy's parents wrote anonymous notes of gratitude to the mother of the boy who died. She wrote back, a five-page letter about her son, but again names weren't exchanged.
Eventually, both families signed releases so their names could be used. But they never had spoken.
Then on Aug. 13, out of the blue, Macy's dad received a phone message:
“Hello, Mr. Stevens, this is Debra King, Cameron's mom. Macy has Cameron's heart. I wanted to see how y'all are doing and talk with you about some things. Please give me a call when you can, and I hope all is good with Macy and your family. Love ya all.”
She wanted to invite Macy and the rest of the Stevens family to celebrate Cameron's life. It took Jordan Stevens three days to steel himself before returning the call.
“How do I tell his mom, a mother of four kids and three stepchildren, that my daughter, now carrying her son's heart, is extremely frightened of meeting anyone related to Cameron? That she is well aware what had to happen for her to be alive, and she is not quite ready to deal with the emotions that are tied to this scenario?”
Though Jordan knew this trip would be difficult for Macy, he was sure it would be worthwhile for her and the whole family. He made an executive decision that they would go.
Cameron's family and friends had surely grieved his death, but this celebration of his life turned out to be joyous. People learned that six people had received his organs. The congregation applauded when Debra introduced a woman who has Cameron's pancreas.
Without hesitation, Macy Stevens walked to the front of the sanctuary when called.
“This here is Macy,” Debra told the congregation. And then she made her request.
“I want to ask Macy if I can hear my baby's heartbeat,” she said. “Can I listen to Cameron's heartbeat, Macy?”
Macy nodded, and Debra gently rested her head on Macy's chest, listening for the sound of a son she had lost.
That gesture said it all.
Outside, 16 balloons were released in honor of Cameron's birthday. The celebration continued, with food and drinks.
As the Stevens family departed, Debra gave Macy a T-shirt with pictures of Cameron.
She added: “Now, Macy, that's a good heart you've got there. It's the best heart you could have gotten.”
Thanksgiving came and went, and so did the fifth anniversary of Macy's Dec. 2 transplant. The family looks forward to Christmas and then a Dec. 30 heart-catheter procedure to make sure everything is going as well as it seems.
“Her heart is good, and she is doing well,” her father said last week. “We're really very fortunate. There have not been any rejection issues during the five years.”
Jordan came from an unusual array of siblings. He is the eighth of 10 boys, with no sisters. Now he is the only male in a house with four females.
He plans to write a book about his family. It will start when he and his wife, as a young couple, feared their first child would die in infancy from heart problems. Last month's trip south provided an important chapter.
Macy is a quiet, creative type who loves music and movies and just made a club volleyball team.
And, yes, she is glad she made the trip she had feared, and met her heart donor's family.
“It was eye-opening to see what they had to go through, what they lost and how much they cherished him,” she said. “The whole family was nice. It was a good closure.”
Macy had endured a kind of survivor's guilt, unsure that she wanted to know about the boy who became her donor. But she learned so much from his heartbroken but upbeat mother and others who loved him.
Now she can tell you all about Cameron, whose life story she knows by heart.