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Transplant gives strangers an uncommon bond

Years after girl’s death, recipient of her lungs meets donor’s mother

When she opened the envelope, Denise Kitchen saw the enclosed photo before reading the letter she had waited so long to receive. A pretty teenage girl with freckles across her nose smiled up at her.

It was a portrait of Alicia Burroughs-Horne, the girl whose untimely death in 2003 saved Kitchen’s life.

“I started crying,” said Kitchen.

The 64-year-old retired teacher’s assistant from Custer, S.D., received a double lung transplant on Aug. 4, 2003. The day before, they were Alicia’s lungs.

The 17-year-old died seven years ago today from a stroke caused by a blood clot resulting from a genetic hypercoagulable disorder.

Alicia’s mother, Cheryl Burroughs-Horne, of Harrison, Idaho, said Kitchen was one of eight people who received her daughter’s organs, including lungs, liver, kidneys and corneas.

Burroughs, 44, and Kitchen met for the first time Monday at a Coeur d’Alene motel.

“All I know is we were a perfect match,” Kitchen said of the organ donation from Alicia. “It’s like we were made to be together.”

In seven years, she said, her body has shown no sign of rejecting the lungs. Her own were damaged by primary pulmonary hypertension, a condition characterized by abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.

Two years after receiving Alicia’s lungs, Kitchen met a woman at a support group who said that allowing her son’s organs to be donated was the hardest decision of her life and one she would never regret.

“Her story made me know I had to contact my donor’s family,” Kitchen said.

Though she wrote the organ donation advocacy group LifeSource in 2005 seeking to meet the donor family, Burroughs-Horne was not ready to meet her.

“I probably read Kitchen’s letter a hundred times, but I was just not ready to accept the fact that Alicia was gone,” Burroughs-Horne said.

But in 2009 Burroughs-Horne was diagnosed with lung cancer, and she decided it was time to meet Kitchen. She replied to Kitchen through the advocacy group Donate Life.

“After I was diagnosed with cancer, I knew I had to contact Denise. I knew it was time,” Burroughs-Horne said.

They sat in the motel lobby, sharing photos and memories. They talked about Alicia, who would be 24 now. Would she be married? Would she have gone to veterinary school as she dreamed?

The women discussed life’s trials and whether there was anything to be learned from them.

Both agreed there was wisdom in what Burroughs-Horne’s own mother once told her, that God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.

“I’m blessed that Denise was the one God picked,” Burroughs-Horne said.

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