ST. LOUIS – Almost 16 years later, Bob Spencer’s voice still cracks. He stops mid-sentence. He looks away. Time passes, but some wounds are too deep to heal.
He tries to relive the last conversation with his late daughter, Dana, as he stands in a Chaifetz Arena concourse Wednesday night. The moment was a flash in time, something that could have been lived within a household anywhere in the country. The talk was about jeans. Dana had wanted to go out in a pair with holes cut around her knees. Her parents protested. Mom and Dad won. Dana changed. Bob said, “Thank you for doing that.” Soon, little about the world was the same.
“Dana’s memory will never be erased from either of our minds,” Bob says now. “You don’t ever lose a child.”
There’s a new normal after heartbreak. It’s less complete than the rhythm known before. Wounds become scars, emotions become hidden but never forgotten, memories become ties to the past. A different life begins.
On Jan. 2, 1997, Dana Spencer died from severe head injuries sustained in a car accident less than a mile from her St. Louis home. She was bubbly, vivacious and loved to giggle. She was 16.
Dana’s heart was donated to Justin Hughes, brother of former Saint Louis guard and NBA player Larry Hughes. Justin was born with a heart defect that required a pacemaker to be installed; he was 11 years old when given Dana’s gift of life. A piece of her lived with him.
Over the years, the Hughes and Spencer families grew close. The Hughes family celebrated some of Dana’s birthdays. Justin called Pattie, Dana’s mother, his “heart mom.” He graduated from high school and lived in an apartment of his own, before dying on May 11, 2006, at age 20 because of heart failure. He was given a chance to fulfill his dreams.
“They became family,” says Larry, who was drafted eighth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1998.
“Obviously, in the beginning, it was easier for us to accept. They were patient. They were understanding and accepted the fact that we were appreciative of what they gave us. Over the years, we just built a relationship. We look at them as family.”
Wednesday, the families joined by two lives met again. During halftime of SLU’s 72-45 victory over Eastern Illinois, the Spencers presented Hughes with a Donate Life Champion award from Mid-America Transplant Services and Donate Life America. It was given for his work in supporting organ and tissue donation through activities with The Larry Hughes Foundation. One heart. Many legacies.
“I think it’s all about awareness, all about getting the word out there and touching as many people as possible,” says Larry, sounds from the court lifting behind him. “Just understanding that one person can touch over 50 lives.”
The numbers can startle. More than 115,000 Americans wait for a lifesaving organ transplant – including more than 1,300 in St. Louis. Eighteen people die each day in the United States because of a lack of organs for transplant. On average, 79 people receive a lifesaving organ transplant each day in this country. A single organ donor can save eight lives and enhance the quality of life for 50 more people through tissue donation.
There are ties to SLU basketball that show how widespread the need can be. Former coach Charlie Spoonhour, father of Eastern Illinois coach Jay Spoonhour, received a lung transplant and advocated organ donation. On Dec. 1, former coach Rick Majerus died in Los Angeles awaiting a heart transplant.
Life is fragile, a delicate mystery. Ask Larry why his family became close with the Spencers, and he’ll admit it’s hard to explain. They’re bound by two memories, two young people who had so much more to give. Sometimes, pain provides a new path.
“Their connection is an emotional connection,” says Tammy McLane, director of corporate communications at Mid-America Transplant Services. “It’s an important one. It’s a rare one. But I think it has had some very incredible healing benefit. … It has been a beautiful thing to see them in each other’s lives.”
Justin was a fighter, a strong worker and a tough spirit, someone who inspired Larry to raise awareness so others can be saved. Meanwhile, Dana was a gentle presence – “The light of our lives,” Bob says – and someone whose soul lasted beyond her own.
“We’ve always been respectful of them and appreciative of the gift that they gave us,” Larry says of the Spencers. “I think they genuinely saw that, accepted that. It wasn’t anything made up. It was just bringing them into our family knowing they gave us a gift.”
The wounds stay fresh, but so do some rewards. It was different than greeting his Dana, but Bob can’t recall a time when Justin was without a smile. He and Pattie like to think the trait was a gift from their daughter. They like to think part of her never left.
They saw Justin grow for nine years, becoming a young man before their eyes. They took pride in watching him along the way. Later, when Justin’s health declined, the Spencers took it hard. It was like losing Dana again.
“We hope,” Bob says, “that this event will help enough people to choose to donate life and there will be other Justins who will live because of the things we’re doing here.”
There’s always hope for tomorrow, even if the past is never gone. Sometimes, little about life is fair. Sometimes, it’s best to say, “Thank you,” for the time given and never, ever forget.