SPRING HILL — Vicky Brannon's heartache turned on a heartbeat Saturday.
It was both Valentine's Day and National Organ Donor Day, and, for the first time in more than 18 years, Brannon heard her dead son's heart beating.
In July 1996, Matthew John McIntyre II, 14, the quiet one among her three sons, was visiting friends across the street from the family's home in Fulton, N.Y., when he was shot and killed by a 17-year-old acquaintance.
Police called the shooting an accident; Brannon calls it murder. A shared girlfriend was involved, Brannon alleges.
Brannon rode beside her son in the ambulance to University Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y. She was sent to a waiting room while Matthew was whisked to an exam room.
"The first I heard was a doctor who came in and told me I needed to think about organ donation," she recalled last week. "It was difficult in that I couldn't accept that he was gone. They talked to me and explained that was the best thing I could do. He was dead, but at least his organs would live."
Matt's brother, Chad Henderson, 16, and knowing vaguely about organ donation at the time, said last week, "I felt fine about it. I thought it was a good thing. We'd been that kind of family. Give what you can. Matt was like that, too."
Matt's heart, liver, pancreas and both kidneys were harvested and transplanted into recipients living on life's edge.
"When we left the funeral home that day, there was a double rainbow," Brannon said of the vivid memory.
• • •
The following year, Brannon was lying in bed in a state of continuing depression, the TV offering background distraction. Her attention snapped to the screen at a message about organ donation. Matt's photo appeared on the screen. His organs had saved three lives, the infomercial reported.
Brannon wrote and sent Matthew's photo to the three via the New York Organ Donor Network, as per protocol. Such networks generally don't share donor-recipient information for a year after surgeries — and even then not unless both parties express wishes to make contact.
Only the patient who received a kidney and the pancreas responded immediately.
Brannon wondered, particularly, about the heart recipient.
"That was the biggest part of him," she said.
Two days after seeing the infomercial, Brannon moved to Florida to help care for her ailing mother. Thus, she missed receiving a letter from the parents of Jennifer Lentini in Hicksville, N.Y. Then 14 years old, and with Matthew's heart beating in her chest, Lentini had enthusiastically responded, seeking to meet her donor's family.
But the family got no word.
"I remember when I turned 18 (the legal age allowing her own communication) I wrote a letter to Donor Services. I never heard," she said.
She faithfully wrote similar letters until age 25, when the family's home was gutted by fire.
"Dad grabbed files. Mom grabbed the dog," she said.
All else seemingly was lost.
• • •
Lentini's ordeal had begun at age 13 with stomach pains, finally resulting in exploratory surgery.
"I had cardiac arrest on the operating table," she recollected last week. Her parents were told she was dying. "I received last rites."
While the teen held on, doctors informed her parents she likely could survive with a heart transplant to replace a purportedly defective one. She lay for three months and a day in New York Presbyterian Hospital until, on July 6, 1996, a young, healthy heart arrived.
"All we knew was I got it from a 14-year-old named Matthew. He was a victim of an accident with a gun," Lentini said.
Lentini's ongoing recovery hasn't been without pitfalls.
"Your immune system is shot after a transplant," she said. "A cold can keep you home a week. For the flu you can be hospitalized. I can't grow any hair on my head. Drugs alone are expensive. I take 20 pills a day. I graduated from high school and college, but I was a little slower than most people.
"It's been a bit of a bumpy road. But I've been given 18 years more, so far, than I should have had."
She will turn 32 next month.
• • •
Such are the history and thoughts that Lentini has wanted to share with Matthew's family.
Recently, the box of files her dad saved from the long-ago fire was opened, revealing Brannon's letter and Matthew's photo in its midst.
Lentini decided to renew her search. Her lawyer found Matthew's obituary. From it, "we started looking on Facebook, messaging people we thought might be connected," Lentini said.
Matthew's brother Chad, now living in Detroit, responded.
"We talked for what, an hour and a half? Two hours?" Henderson inquired of Lentini on Saturday in the living room of his mother's Spring Hill home.
The room was engulfed in chatter, an exchange of memorial gifts and joyful tears. Gathered were Brannon; Chad Henderson; Lentini; her boyfriend, Thomas Bolger; and Henderson's 4-year-old daughter, Savannah.
The new, extended family finally met.
Erin Daly, a prosecutor in the Hernando County State Attorney's Office and a liver donor who had met Lentini at a New York Organ Donor-sponsored marathon, helped to facilitate the gathering. She had encouraged Lentini to pursue the wherewithal to make the trip to Florida via an Internet fundraising site. Lentini raised $2,400 in 11 days.
"We all had a few tears when we met," Lentini of their initial gathering in the terminal at Tampa International Airport.
The group took in a few sites en route to Spring Hill, arriving still breathless with excitement.
"It doesn't feel real to me," Lentini said. "It feels like we've been talking for years."
"I feel so close to her," Brannon added.
Lentini slipped out a stethoscope, pressed the ear pieces to Brannon's head and placed the diaphragm on her chest.
Above the mother's smile, a tear trickled down her cheek.
"She's got him beating in her," she said.
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]