04/24/11 — Joe (and Michael's) gift

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Joe (and Michael's) gift

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 24, 2011 1:50 AM

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Sandi and Mike Lugo hold pictures of their sons Michael, left, and Joe. Joe was 14 and Michael, 18, when they died in a tragic car accident in March 2003. The Lugos recently met one of the people who was saved because of Joe's organ donation.

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The Lugo family meets Tara Vancil, second from right, organ donor transplant recipient of son Joseph Lugo's heart eight years ago. From left, Sandi Lugo, Rhonda Vancil, Tara's mother, Anne Lugo, Ms. Vancil and Mike Lugo.

PIKEVILLE -- It has been eight years since Sandi and Mike Lugo lost two of their three children in a car accident.

They still miss them every day.

While the tragedy of losing their children will never be erased from their memory, they have taken a bit of comfort in knowing that one of their sons was able to save four people's lives.

And this year, they finally got to meet one of them.


Mrs. Lugo remembers a conversation she had with her eldest son, Michael, shortly before the accident about organ donation.

"We talked about it, and he asked me if I was an organ donor," she said. "I said 'yes,' that it's important thing to give blood and donate because there are people that can benefit. He had a good feeling about it and had planned to do it."

The Eastern Wayne High School senior had a promising career ahead of him, being named a Teaching Fellow with aspirations of becoming an educator.

But on March 17, 2003, everything changed.

Michael, 17, was driving his two siblings, Angelina "Anne," 15, and Joseph, 14, and 15-year-old neighbor and friend Nicole Long to school when they were involved in a head-on collision. Michael and Nicole both died at the scene.

Anne was flown to Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville, while Joe was taken to Wayne Memorial Hospital. Following surgery to have his spleen removed, he was placed in ICU.

On March 23, after suffering a massive stroke, doctors pronounced Joe brain dead.

Having already buried one child and juggling time between two hospitals in two different cities, the Lugos were faced with some heavy decisions, including organ donation.

"Mike was not able (to donate organs) because of the way the accident was, and it was something that he had wanted to do," Mrs. Lugo said.

They felt sure that Joe would feel the same way about organ donation as his big brother.

So they signed all the necessary paperwork to allow Joe's organs to be donated, even consenting to future contact should any of the recipients wish to meet the family in the future.

They learned that four people received their son's organs -- both kidneys and the liver, with the heart going to a girl who was 19 at the time. Knowing that especially touched the couple -- that young woman was close to Michael's age.

Grief in the ensuing months was overwhelming at times and for the most part the family's faith sustained them. Except when it came to some of the hard questions.

"My thought had always been, why, why Joe? Why couldn't God have done the same miracle that he had done for Angelina?" Lugo asked. "Joe brought us laughter. He brought us joy. He'd been the family comedian, he'd always get us to laugh."

The doubts gave way to anger for the anguished father.

"(God) had knowledge of what was going to happen that day -- why didn't You prevent it from happening?" he would ask. "I was constantly getting bombarded about God's existence, no sons to carry on our name."

He could have chosen any number of options -- turning to alcohol, getting a divorce to escape the pain. Instead, he says now, God got through to him.

"As a father, and what we believe and what we taught our kids, we have always taught them, Mom and Dad are gonna make mistakes, you're going to make mistakes, but there's one that's not going to make mistakes and that's Christ -- rely on Him," Lugo said. "You have to examine your life, what can I do to make it better? What I did was put my whole faith in God."

His wife handled her grief differently.

"I didn't get upset as far as being angry about it," she said. "He was kind of hurt maybe. I was thankful we had (Anne)."

Mrs. Lugo, who had previously battled cancer and was diagnosed with a third round of the disease since the accident, took a more philosophical approach.

"The thought came to me, who would you put it on, who else would you put this on? Your worst enemy? Obviously I must be able to withstand it in order for it to be on me," she said.

The couple admitted it would have been helpful to hear something from even one of the donor recipients.

"That first year I was very bitter because my thought process was, how ungrateful can people be in not saying thanks for saving a life?" Lugo said. "The second, third year, still bitter.

"I gave it over to God, if He wanted us to meet. All I know is we did what we thought was right. I wasn't looking for something, just wanted to make sure the story was told, that people were grateful for our gift."


What the Lugos didn't, and couldn't, have known, was that at least one of the recipients did attempt to make contact. The young girl who received Joe's heart.

"Tara (Vancil) wrote letters and sent us pictures of herself, she did a Build a Bear and Build a Duck (stuffed animals), we never heard anything," Lugo said. "She had been writing all along."

The glitch might have been two-fold -- recipients are advised not to share too many personal details in letters, and through some clerical error, the Lugos' paperwork consenting to meet the donors was lost.

Tara did an interview in October about her story. She had spent seven years trying to thank the donor family and her wish was to one day meet them. Soon after that, the Lugos received a call from Carolina Donors inquiring if there was interest in a meeting.

"That's when we found out she was from our state," Mrs. Lugo said. "She lives in Burlington and the operation was at Duke. ... We exchanged e-mails and contact information."

The meeting took place in January.

The powerful healing that accompanied it was palpable, the couple said.

"The fact that we donated Joseph's organs and we saw something good come out of the tragedy was very heartfelt to us, but once you laid eyes on the person, just solidified or confirmed to me that we made the right choice, that this person's life was spared," Lugo said.

"Meeting Tara brought closure to us but meeting us brought things full circle for her," Mrs. Lugo added. "She had been in a wheelchair, had been given three months to live and doctors put her to the top of the (transplant) list. ...

"I don't think people realize the guilt that lays on people that receive organs. It's a new lease on life (but) Tara's thing was when she was told she had a heart, the first thing she did was cry because she knew something had to happen to be given that heart."


Losing one, and even two children, is something no parent should have to endure, the couple said. But they have also made peace with the fact that good things can come from bad.

"We can't change the accident and we can't change the strokes (Joe suffered), we can't change what happened but we can choose to look for good," Mrs. Lugo said. "I choose to be happy."

"Sandi and I say that our children's physical organs aren't what made them who they were, it's their soul," her husband said.

As for Anne, now 23, she is an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher at Wendell Middle School. She graduated from Eastern Wayne High School as a Teaching Fellow, something she hadn't initially envisioned herself working toward.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew Mike wanted to be a teacher," she said.

There are challenges being an educator, but she has set up a successful after school program that she particularly enjoys.

"There's about 15 to 17 kids that come, three teachers, and they get one-on-one attention," she said. "As a result, they're doing better in their classes."

Anne still bears some of the scars of surviving the accident that claimed the lives of her two brothers and church friend. She quietly listened as her parents shared their recollections of their darkest days eight years ago, dabbing at the occasional tear as they spoke.

"I think she's more independent and much stronger than I think she ever gave herself credit for being," her mother said. "When she was coming up in between two boys, she had a big brother and a little brother who thought he was a big brother, always thinking for her.

"She's come into her own. She was in college. She traveled. She did three study abroad -- Mexico, France and Argentina -- and had something particular happen in every single one but came through it because we couldn't get to her, couldn't help her."

The Lugos' message transcends the pain of surviving an ordeal. It's about making wise choices when the need arises.

"Stop and think about making that decision to donate a loved one's organs," Lugo said. "Just from the experience we had, even through the tragedy, it helped us deal with it that much easier and it brought a sense of happiness to see that something good came out and Joe's organs were able to sustain another life for however long God saw fit.

"I think it's something that families should discuss -- at this time that they have the time to talk about it, to make the decision to donate organs."