Published June 17, 2011
CHARLESTON, W.Va.—The sound of a stranger's breath brought closure to the mother of NFL receiver Chris Henry because she knew her son's lungs were making it possible.
It was 11 months after the December 2009, accident that ended Henry's life that Carolyn Henry Glaspy, 46, was able to meet the people whose lives were changed because of her son.
Glaspy donated Henry's organs after doctors told her he was brain dead.
At an event in a North Carolina hospital, organizers told her the four people would be standing when they opened the doors, but Glaspy said she knew the four when she saw them.
"They didn't have to tell me," she said. "I just knew. I could feel him in them."
Glaspy donated Henry's heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and pancreas. Brian Polk received a kidney, and James Benson received a liver. Donna Arnold received his pancreas and kidney. All are from North Carolina. Tom Elliot of Pennsylvania received Henry's lungs. The recipient of Henry's heart died before Glaspy could meet him.
"These four lives were saved because of my son," she said. "I got my closure when I listened to that man's chest and could hear Chris' lungs inside of him."
"I cried because that's my son, helping him breathe."
She said she touched all of them and told them they were a part of her family. They told her she was a part of theirs as well.
Glaspy was in Charleston Friday to tell her story about organ donation. She was to speak at a private luncheon at Charleston Area Medical Center's Memorial Hospital and in the evening will appear at the West Virginia Power baseball game.
Workers from CAMC's Kidney Transplant Center and the Center for Organ Recovery and Education will be sign up organ donors and hand out T-shirts at the game.
Glaspy, who works at a Family Dollar store in Cincinnati, travels the country speaking about organ donation. She said she would appear in Morgantown at a sports camp hosted by another WVU standout, Quincy Wilson, who played running back for the Mountaineers when Henry was on the team.
She travels with a blanket given to her by a pair of brothers. The blanket shows her son in a Cincinnati Bengals uniform. She said the blanket is an inspiration and something she can show others while she speaks.
She had never thought about organ donation until that day in December when she was faced with it.
Henry, a former WVU standout, had been injured while playing for the Bengals and was recovering in Charlotte, N.C., where his fiancee, Loleini Tonga, lived.
The 26-year-old player was in the back of a pickup truck driven by Tonga when he fell out and struck his head.
Glaspy was at her Cincinnati area home when she was informed of the incident. She recalled speaking to Henry earlier in the day. They talked about his wedding to Tonga planned for the following March and about how he was healing. When they said goodbye, it was the same as always, she recalled.
"He said, `One love,' like he always did, and that was our goodbye," she said.
The mother and son were close. Henry was born and raised in Belle Chasse, La., just outside New Orleans. She said he had dreamed of playing in the NFL since he was a child.
He played football for three years at West Virginia University. He entered the NFL draft in 2005 and was picked by the Bengals in the third round.
Glaspy and her family were in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast city in 2005. Henry was at training camp with the Bengals when the hurricane hit.
She said they tried to evacuate and were in line on the road out of town when they were told the bridge was out. The family went back into town and rode out the storm in Glaspy's sister-in-law's home. They survived, but a newspaper reported that Glaspy had been among those killed, sending Henry into an emotional rollercoaster, she said.
"He said he was beside himself," Glaspy said. "We finally got to a phone and were able to call to let him know we were OK."
The family was evacuated to northern Kentucky. Glaspy and her immediate family stayed there when members of their extended family moved back to New Orleans three months later.
New Orleans is Henry's resting place now. After he died and doctors took his organs, his body was sent there for burial.
Glaspy said her son wasn't perfect and she acknowledged his mistakes. Henry was ejected from a WVU football game for unsportsmanlike conduct, suspended once while playing for the Bengals and released by the team after his fifth arrest. The team re-signed him months later.
"He wasn't a perfect child, but he went through everything he had to go through by the time he was 26," she said. "He was turning his life around. It's too bad that it was at the end of his life.
"Just knowing Chris had the opportunity to give someone a second chance at life is enough."
She said in his time with the Bengals he often tried to give back to the kids in Cincinnati by spending time with them and playing ball, or giving them food, clothes or whatever else he could.
He extended his generosity to New Orleans, where friends and family told Glaspy he behaved like a "different person."
Glaspy said she has become a registered organ donor since donating her son's organs. Many members of her family, including Chris' brothers, Marcus and Derek, also have registered to be organ donors. She said it's important to inform family members of the decision to donate organs so in the event of death they can follow that person's wishes.
She keeps in touch with the four recipients of Henry's organs, speaking to them often via the Internet. She said she spent a couple of days in Los Angeles with Donna Arnold.
"I always ask them if there's anything I can do for them, and they tell me they should be doing for me," she said. "I tell them we can do for each other."
It isn't common for the families of donors to meet recipients, but it does happen, said Alice Jones, a registered nurse and transplant coordinator at CAMC's Kidney Transplant Center. The hospital has the only transplant center in the state and averages 50 or so kidney transplants per year. She said the facility has performed 948 transplants since it opened in 1987.
She said the waiting list for a kidney in the state stands at 100 and more than 500 people were awaiting work-ups for the procedure. The facility performs living-donor-to-relative and living-donor-to-non-relative procedures along with deceased-donor procedures.
Kayla Bland, a Greenbrier County woman, received a kidney transplant a few years ago and will also speak during today's events. Bland also is close to her donor's family.