Donor Mom advocates for organ donation
“He looked like he was sleeping.”
Claudia Grammatico’s eyes still cloud up as she recalls that more than eight-year-old vision of her son Paul, lying in a hospital emergency room.
Though his body was virtually unscarred, the 26-year-old successful stockbroker and athlete was brain-dead, killed with his best friend, Michael Penny, in a May 19, 1999, traffic accident in Atlantic Beach, L.I. Both were thrown from the car they were in, which was being driven by a drunken driver.
“I was devastated,” Grammatico said. “That was my son. When you lose a child, you lose part of your future.”
In the emotional blur that was her son’s final hours, the Valley Stream mom did something that would change her life, the lives of dozens, if not hundreds, of other people, and in the process created a lasting legacy for Paul, her only son.
When doctors approached her about donating Paul’s organs, Grammatico said yes. “They took Mike directly to the morgue,” Grammatico said. “I was given something his mother was not given, and that was a chance to say yes. “You don’t say that yes loudly, you whisper it,” she said. “That has to be one of the holiest words I have ever said.”
That yes meant a new life for then-48-year-old Joe Senatore of Bay Shore, L.I., who got Paul’s heart, and for the 63-year-old retired science teacher in Kansas and 54-year-old Nevada father who each got a kidney, the 56-year-old upstate New York woman who got his liver and the 59-year-old Massachusetts woman who got one of his lungs. Paul’s tissue and bone marrow also were procured and utilized., Grammatico would meet Senatore during an annual ceremony for organ-donor families and transplant recipients at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Her life also has been transformed.
Grammatico, 59, has become a tireless campaigner for organ donation, traveling across the metro area, state and country. She remains active with the New York Organ Donor Network. She established a foundation in Paul’s name, donations from which prompted mercyFirst, a Syosset, L.I., home for teen boys that Paul had supported, to name one of its dormitories Grammatico Hall in his honor. “Sixteen boys live in Paul’s building,” Grammatico said. “It was dedicated a year to the day from when his heart was transplanted. Many of these boys were abandoned. Paul always supported them. He liked the Sisters of Mercy [who founded the facility that became mercyFirst].”
Eyewear giant Davis Vision embraced the boys at mercyFirst, giving them free annual vision care and sponsoring junkets to Jets and Yankees games.
Valley Stream High School renamed its annual wrestling tournament in Paul’s honor, and city officials planted a tree in his name in a local park. Grammatico also wrote a song about organ donations, “The Gifts of Life and Love,” which has been sung at Knicks and Rangers games and has become so popular that it has been recorded by 23 different artists, and has several Spanish language versions.
Grammatico has been featured in a documentary about organ donations, “The Space Between Breaths.” The former schoolteacher now does bereavement workshops for those trying to cope with a loved one’s loss. “There are people who can’t see light in the darkness,” she said. She has evolved into a member of a larger family – the world of organ donors and transplant recipients and their families, bonded by lives saved by lost lives.
“Every donor family is my family, because we know what it means to lose a loved one,” she said. Standing in Nassau Medical Center, where Paul had been airlifted, and seeing him lying there, Grammatico said even in her grief organ donation seemed the right thing to do. “When you lose a loved one that way, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, it is still incredibly painful to deal with,” she said. “You don’t want to think about what they have to do to get the organs. I always ask donor families how they came to do what they did.”
Every second Saturday in May, the song she wrote in 2001 is sung at the “Remember and Rejoice” celebration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Grammatico, whose license plate reads DONORMOM, has found her calling. “Horrible things do happen to regular people,” she said. “When something like this happens, people have the chance in death to save someone else’s life.”
Grammatico can be reached at ClaudPaul@aol.com.