Palmetto man grateful to heart donor

myoung@bradenton.comApril 14, 2014 

BRADENTON -- Early this year, 7-year-old Hannah was able to feel her mother's heart beat for the first time.

Her mother's heart was beating, however, inside 33-year-old Andrew Spehr of Palmetto.

As part of April's National Donor Awareness Month, a Donate Life flag-raising ceremony, the first of its kind in Florida, took place Friday at Blake Medical Center where Spehr and the donor's moth

er, Dana Grey of Fort Myers, spoke to a crowd of elected officials, citizens and medical professionals on becoming an organ donor.

"The tranquility in my granddaughter's smile as she listened to her mother's heartbeat through Andrew was miraculous," said Grey. "She now has a connection to her mother she could not have without organ donation."

Spehr, a U.S. Navy veteran, left the service in 2004 and received a series of inoculations that included the smallpox vaccine as part of his exit process. He had an adverse reaction to the vaccine and his health began to decline over the next two years.

"I would be tired all the time and had a dry cough," said Spehr. "I would come home from work and go straight to bed and sleep until the next morning. I didn't think too much about it because I was working at a physical job."

He continued to sicken, however, and was admitted into the intensive care unit at Blake in 2006.

"I spent two days there and then they brought me down to the fourth floor and told me I had congestive heart failure," said Spehr.

As Spehr negotiated the medical and insurance systems while also trying to have the Department of Veterans Affairs review his case, time passed and many more hospital trips ensued until April 15, 2007, when he was referred to LifeLink in Tampa, which partners with hospitals to match donated organs to recipients.

Spehr said he didn't have time to think about dying.

"I was just too sick to think about anything else," he said.

At about the same time he was being evaluated for the organ donor waiting list, Danielle Grey, 22, mother of then-4-month-old Hannah, was hospitalized with severe head trauma after a car accident left her brain-dead.

Dana Grey said her daughter was full of life and loved Hannah more than anything in the world.

"Danielle was an amazing mother and she was my best friend," said a tearful Grey.

Once Danielle's parents realized she would not recover from the head trauma their choice of action was clear.

"My husband and I looked at each other and said, 'Organ donation,'" Grey said. "Organ donation was the right thing to do. It was the loving thing to do. But more importantly, it was what Danielle wanted to do."

Grey said the family couldn't change the tragedy of losing Danielle, but could make something positive come from it.

"Through Danielle's gift of life, we were able to turn our tears of sorrow into someone's tears of joy," she said.

The donor program allows donors and recipients to meet one another if they wish.

Grey and Spehr, through their own personal experiences, were LifeLink volunteers but did not know each another when they agreed to meet. Spehr said the meeting was arranged by LifeLink a week before Valentine's Day.

"There are not enough words to express the astounding emotions felt upon meeting this wonderful young man," said Grey. "We are not only friends, we are family."

Spehr referred to Grey as his "donor mom."

Spher remains 100 percent VA disabled, but is an active volunteer. Now corresponding with another recipient who received an organ from Grey's daughter, he is passionate about LifeLink's work.

According to Besty Edwards, public affairs for LifeLink, 121,000 people are on the national organ donation waiting list, including more than 5,400 Floridians.

"We come together to celebrate the donor heroes," said Edwards. "And to raise awareness about how other people can become donor heroes."

For more information about LifeLink or how to become a donor, go to lifelinkfoundation.org.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.

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