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A startling ending in mother's quest to find recipient of deceased son's heart

Kendrick Murray suffered an unexpected seizure at work and hit his head during the fall, causing massive brain swelling. He required immediate surgery and died a week later. [Courtesy Adrian Murray]
Kendrick Murray suffered an unexpected seizure at work and hit his head during the fall, causing massive brain swelling. He required immediate surgery and died a week later. [Courtesy Adrian Murray]
Published Jul. 26, 2016

When 25-year-old Kendrick Murray died, his mother Adrian Murray was surprised to learn he was an organ donor.

She was given the option to designate his organs to specific people in need of a transplant and chose her local pastor to take the boy's kidney. The rest of the organs went to anonymous recipients, but over time, Adrian realized she would only have peace of mind if she could find his heart.

It took almost a year, but she finally learned who had her son's heart. The discovery shocked her and filled her own heart with joy.

"When I found out, I started hollering and screaming," Adrian told The Post. "I couldn't believe it."

Her story, as she described it to The Post, begins with one of the worst days of Adrian's life.

It was Sept. 5, 2015, a day that began like many Southern Saturdays — with a tailgate.

The Mississippi State Bulldogs were taking on the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles that evening in Hattiesburg, where she lives, and Adrian Murray planned to watch the rivalry with her 25-year-old son Kendrick. That morning, he'd arranged to meet her at the tailgate, so she arrived early to take in the sights.

The aromatic smoke from the charcoal grills, the spirited shouts of "Hail State" and "Eagle Fever," the swell of excitement before a big game — none of it could engage Adrian. Kendrick had not arrived and she couldn't figure out why.

"I just kept getting up looking for Kendrick," she told The Washington Post on a phone interview. "I kept looking at the time, asking 'Where is my son?'"

Kendrick, she would soon learn, was at the Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Miss. He had had an unexpected seizure at work and had hit his head during the fall, causing massive brain swelling. He required immediate surgery.

The prognosis was not good.

She visited him each day for a week. Kendrick was non-responsive, except when Adrian touched his cheek. It would twitch. She remembered how much he hated having his face touched, and it gave her hope.

The next Saturday, her visit was different.

"I touched him," she said. "He was cold as ice. It was the first time I'd felt my son feel like that, and I knew he was gone."

"He was my firstborn," she said. "My right hand man. For him to be dead, that was a lot to process."

Finally, a woman named Vicki Shoemake approached her to sign some papers.

"That's when I found out my son was an organ donor," Adrian said. "He never told me he was an organ donor."

She was just surprised because, as she put it, "African Americans do not donate their organs," a belief confirmed by research.

"Can I choose who receives the organs?" she asked.

When she was told she could, she thought back to a day just a month earlier.

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In August, Adrian had attended what she called a "friend and family day" at West Point Baptist Church. This particular gathering was a benefit for Pastor Michael Minor, whose diabetes had caused kidney damage.

When a collection was sent around the church that hot day in August, he was in end-stage renal failure.

He needed a transplant, quickly.

Adrian held the white donation envelope, wishing she could help. But she had an infant at home and money was already tight, so she tucked the envelope into her daughter's baby bag.

"I don't have anything to give him, but I'm going hold onto this for when I do," she remembered thinking.

It hit her like a bolt of lighting there in the hospital the day Kendrick died. She scribbled "Michael Minor" on the blank line next to kidney, designating the organ to her pastor.

At 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning, Minor received a call from the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, asking if he could be in Jackson by 8 a.m. so they could give him Kendrick's kidney.

Adrian found she enjoyed knowing where her part of her son was, and she became curious whose lives the rest of her son's organs saved.

She was particularly interested in her son's heart — it was still beating somewhere, and it would give her closure to find it.

"I wanted to know where my son's heartbeat was," Adrian said. "That would give me peace of mind."

On many Sundays, Adrian's family gathers for large potluck dinners. By the month of Kendrick's death, she'd noticed that one of her cousins, Clintoria Johnson, hadn't made all of the dinners as of late. When Johnson was there, clear tubes ran from her nose, disappearing somewhere in her blouse. Adrian didn't know why.

"I never asked any questions, and she never offered any information," she said. "She was private."

Johnson would later tell WDAM her heart was functioning at an extremely low level — by her own words, 10 percent. She'd been waiting for a transplant for two years. Her doctor said they might have to put her in the hospital, attached to a VAC, or a ventricular assist device, which helps a weakened heart pump blood.

The day after Kendrick died, Johnson received a new heart.

Still, she didn't tell Adrian for several weeks.

"She was being respectful," Adrian said.

But after the funeral for Adrian, Johnson mentioned her emergency transplant.

"I thought it might be Kendrick's, given the timing," Adrian said. But when she called Vicki Shoemake to ask, she was met with a bureaucratic reality: because she didn't designate Kendrick's heart, she would have to go through a long paperwork process to find out where it went.

According to the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency (MORA):

"The identity of all parties is kept confidential. The donor family and the transplant recipient may receive such information as age, gender, occupation and state of residence. . . . The donation agencies facilitate anonymous correspondence and meetings initiated by either the donor family or recipient and only if agreed to by both parties."

Neither she nor Johnson knew, but both submitted paperwork to Shoemake.

On the Monday before Mother's Day, both women received a letter.

It was also the day before what would have been Kendrick's 26th birthday.

Adrian ripped open the envelope, then nervously removed the letter.

"We recently received a letter for you from the lady that received Kendrick's heart," the letter began. She scanned down to the next paragraph, which read, "Her name is Clintoria Ann Johnson."

"It was in my family," she said. "I was just so honored that someone in my family has my son's heartbeat."

Since that day, Adrian has found a new mission — to meet everyone who received Kendrick's organs. She knows his other kidney, both lungs and liver went to recipients in Florida.

On Thursday, she filled out the paperwork requesting to meet them. Meanwhile, she's been picking up more shifts, hoping to save enough money to drive to Florida when the time comes, if they decide they want to meet her.

"I'm hoping that they do," she said. "I just want to hug their necks. Just to feel them wrap their arms around me, it would let me know my son's still here."

She added, her voice cracking over the phone, "I need to see them. Now, we're all family. We're intertwined. We have something in common, and that's my son."

Meanwhile, she's becoming an advocate for organ donation in African American communities. She convinced 10 of her friends and family members to sign up already. On Saturday, she began training at MORA to be able to officially sign up donors.

She still thinks of Kendrick often, of course, but now she feels more than just sadness.

"I could not be any more excited and any more proud," Adrian said. "Am I sad? Yeah, I get sad on occasion. But I'm just glad that other people are living and have a chance to have a productive life. It's a blessing and a scar."


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