When West Virginia University beat Texas, 48-45, on Saturday night in Austin, they announced the attendance as 101,851.
They were wrong.
In reality, there were 101,852.
Taitlyn Shae Hughes was there, too, and this is the story she shares with a Texan named Nefeterius Akili McPherson, the woman who owes Taitlyn her life, having received her liver after she died on Nov. 6, 2011, of a brain hemorrhage.
McPherson is 37. Taitlyn Hughes was 12.
Still recovering from the transplant procedure she went through after suffering from a rare bile duct/liver disease called Secondary Sclerosing Cholangitis, McPherson has become an activist for organ transplants, and this is the story she tells that has gone viral on the Internet, the one that led her into the stands at West Virginia’s football game last Saturday night, wearing Taitlyn’s gold and blue T-shirt, the one that reads:
Be a Mountaineer!
Before we introduce you to Nefeterius Akili McPherson, a lifelong Texan who graduated from SMU, obtained a law degree and worked in the Obama administration, and inform you how she found herself being told that she needed a liver, let us take you to the events that were to come when she learned that a liver had been found for her just 5 1/2 months after she was put on the waiting list.
She had been called into Georgetown University Hospital in D.C., awaiting final word that the liver was available. She was all set to move forward.
“Here comes the transplant team, and they tell me we’re headed over to Children’s Hospital,” she said Wednesday in a phone call from her home in Killeen, Texas. “I was already nervous. You try to prepare for that moment, but you can’t. My heart was beating fast. Then all of a sudden I have the doctor telling me we’re going to Children’s Hospital.”
“Excuse me. My donor is a child?” she said to her doctor.
The doctor looked at her quizzically.
“I don’t think he meant to give me that information, just said that in passing without realizing the effect it would have on me,” she said.
“He was quiet for a moment, then said, ‘Yes, your donor is an older child.’”
“Older child” is something of a contradiction in terms, and McPherson’s mind was whirling, noticing he didn’t say teenager, figuring she was getting the liver of a 10- to a 12-year-old child.
“I just kind of went into some zone,” McPherson recalled. “It was like I saw his mouth moving but I couldn’t process anything else after ‘older child.’ I just turned over and cried in my hospital bed, thinking, ‘How am I supposed to be happy today? How am I supposed to want this liver, a child’s who has died?’ All I could think about was this child’s family, right up until they put me under.”
Twenty-four hours earlier Taitlyn Hughes had been a seemingly happy, beautiful 12-year-old who had awakened for school but soon was complaining of a severe headache. Her parents thought it was a migraine as they both suffered from migraines, and they got her some Advil and a can of Sprite, but she rejected them, ran downstairs and began vomiting.
They put her to bed and could not wake her later to take a hot bath. An ambulance rushed her from her home in Hedgesville to the hospital in Martinsburg, then airlifted her to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., but it turned out there was nothing that could be done. She was in a coma, suffered a stroke, and the parents were informed she would not make it and asked about being an organ donor.
Taitlyn Hughes had expressed to her mother a desire to donate her organs if anything ever happened to her, and so when she died, her kidneys, pancreas and liver were donated to four people.
McPherson was one of the recipients.
Normally, you do not learn the identity of your donor, but McPherson says she found out even before she left the hospital.
“I’d been to the hospital so much all the nurses were excited. I’d been there so often. I felt I was a frequent flier. I was in and out of that transplant floor so much that even the transportation people who take people around in wheelchairs knew me; the food service people knew me.”
In this Internet age, secrets are hard to maintain.
“I knew another man who was transplanted at the same time, and we were on the same floor. He was also 37,” she explained. “Somehow his girlfriend was able to take some information she received and found Taitlyn’s obituary online. Good old Facebook.”
The story contained the information that she had donated organs to four people, one a 37-year-old man, one a 37-year-old woman. It wasn’t official, but she knew.
“I was stalking her Facebook page and reading about this beautiful soul,” she said. “They actually took my computer away because I was trying to recover, and I’m emotional because I received the transplant and now I’m doubly emotional because my donor is a child and I’m looking at these beautiful pictures and her family is so distraught and her friends are mourning her. It was just too much.”
Four months after being released, McPherson was planning to write a letter to Nicole Siva, Taitlyn’s mother, but was surprised when she received one from her.
“I am a lawyer. I’m an English major. I’m a writer. I shouldn’t have any problems, but writing that letter was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, especially after she had sent her letter to me,” she said. “It’s hard for any recipient, but especially when you are talking to someone about her child. I finished my letter on the day that was Taitlyn’s 13th birthday.”
While writing, the emotions kept grabbing at her.
“You can’t imagine the pain she had, but you can feel the pain,” she said.
A meeting was arranged, and McPherson came to West Virginia.
“You can’t prepare for that,” she said. “We had the best time sitting and talking. We’re around the same age, maybe even the exact same age. I almost felt like I was seeing a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in a while.”
Siva was shocked when McPherson walked through her door.
“As soon as she walked in I noticed the similarities between her and Taitlyn — their smiles, their beaming personalities. It was uncanny,” Siva recently told The Charleston Gazette. “They both loved football; they’re both incredibly photogenic. They’re both people who everyone wants to be around. Taitlyn was a kind, generous, gentle soul, and I got that same feeling from Nefeterius when I met her.”
It was similar for McPherson.
“It was humbling when Nicole took me upstairs into her room. Everything was as it was. She had the two aspirin she tried to give Taitlyn to help with what she thought was her migraine. I could feel Taitlyn’s spirit, realizing I am standing in the room of the person who gave me a second chance at life, knowing her liver was inside me.
“Sometimes I just stop and think, ‘Wow, I have someone else’s organ inside of me.’”
The two women talked, and eventually it became time to leave.
“Before I left, Nicole said, ‘I want you to have something.’ I’d gotten them some gifts. She gave me a bracelet, then all of a sudden she pulls out this shirt. She says, ‘I want you to have this.’ I was speechless,” McPherson said. “No one cried, but that brought tears to my eyes.”
And so she went home.
While there, however, she saw in the paper that WVU was playing at Texas.
“I kept the shirt in my apartment, and when I went back to Texas, I brought it with me. That shirt had to come with me. At the time I wasn’t thinking about WVU having joined the Big 12 and that WVU would play Texas,” she said.
“Then, I look at the schedule and all of a sudden I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this game falls on my 11th-month anniversary of my transplant.’ I have to be in Austin ... and I have to wear her shirt.”
Easier said than done.
“At first I thought, ‘I can’t wear it,’ but Nicole convinced me. She said she thought Taitlyn would want me to. It was so great, walking around campus with my cousin in his UT gear, people giving him a hard time about letting me wear that shirt, but I’d tell them, ‘I’m from Texas and this is my donor’s shirt.’ Their immediate reaction was unbelievable; they’d hug me and they’d understand.”
Next will probably be a reunion with Taitlyn’s family at a West Virginia game in Morgantown, there being a strong online push to make that happen.
When West Virginia University beat Texas, 48-45, on Saturday night in Austin, they announced the attendance as 101,851.
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Hostility toward “pits” grew so intense that some cities began treating them as the canine equivalent of assault rifles and prohibited residents from owning them.
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“Lawmakers are realizing that targeting dogs based on their breed or what they look like is not a solution to dealing with dangerous dogs,” said Lisa Peters, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club.
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Pit bull advocates hail the changes as recognition that breed-specific laws discriminate against dogs that are not inherently aggressive or dangerous unless they are made to be that way by irresponsible owners.
The dogs’ foes complain that their message is being drowned out by a well-funded, well-organized lobbying effort in state capitols. The debate puts millions of pit bull owners up against a relatively small number of people who have been victimized by the dogs.
Ron Hicks, who sponsored a bill in the Missouri House to forbid breed-specific legislation, said he was surprised when nobody spoke against his proposal last month at a committee hearing.
“I figured a few parents would be there who would bring tears to my eyes,” the Republican said. “Would it have changed my opinion or what I believe in? No.”
A version of Hicks’ legislation was endorsed by a House committee last month and needs to clear another committee before a full House vote. The state Senate is considering a comparable bill, as are lawmakers in Utah, South Dakota, Washington, Vermont and Maryland.
In Kansas, the communities of Bonner Springs and Garden City repealed their pit-bull bans earlier this year.
Summer Freeman did not know there was a ban when she moved to Bonner Springs last year after a divorce. She panicked when an animal-control officer discovered her pet and told her she had 15 days to get rid of the dog named Titan or move out of town.
“I think of him like my son,” she said. “He’s my dog-son, I guess you could say. He’s at my hip all the time. He’s just a big baby that wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Freeman was forced to leave Titan at a shelter in Lawrence for nine months until she successfully fought to overturn the law in January.
For dog owners and pit bull opponents alike, the battle is as deeply personal as any gun-control or religious issue. Each side accuses the other of lying, exploiting emotions and using bullying tactics.
Pit bull owners insist their dogs are harmless, loving family members that shouldn’t be blamed for something they didn’t do. To opponents, they are a volatile breed whose genetics drive them to kill more than two dozen people in the U.S. each year, many of them young children.
Popular television shows such as “Pit Boss” and “Pit Bulls and Parolees” on Animal Planet glorify the animals and minimize the tragedies that occur when pit bulls turn on humans, pit bull opponents say.
“Everything is telling us these animals are safe if you raise them right,” said Jeff Borchardt, a Stevens Point, Wis., man whose 14-month-old son was mauled to death a year ago by two pit bulls that tore the child from the arms of their owner, who was baby-sitting. “My son’s dead because of a lie, because of a myth. My life will never be the same.”
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“Appellate courts agree with us. Doctors and surgeons agree with us. That is credibility right there,” Lynn said. “We also have the support of three divisions of the U.S. military, huge, massive bodies in the U.S. government.”
The Marines, Army and Air Force all have banned dangerous dogs — including pit bulls and rottweilers — from their bases because of the “unreasonable risk” they pose to safety, Lynn said.
On the other side stand the American Bar Association and National Animal Control Association, which oppose breed-specific laws because they are discriminatory against a type of dog that isn’t really a single breed.
Three main breeds — Staffordshire bull terrier, American pit bull terrier and American Staffordshire terrier — along with mixes of those breeds are generally considered pit bulls. But many muscular, square-jawed, boxer-type dogs often are misidentified as pit bulls, making breed-specific bans hard to enforce.
And because fatal pit bull attacks are a rarity compared with other causes of death such as auto accidents, dog advocates argue that breed-specific bans amount to legislative overkill.
“All communities deserve comprehensive dog laws that demand responsible dog ownership and that hold reckless owners accountable when their poor decisions wind up getting other dogs or other people hurt,” said Ledy Vankavage, a top lobbyist for the Best Friends Animal Society.
Don Burmeister, assistant city attorney for Council Bluffs, Iowa, led the effort to pass a local pit bull ban that took effect in 2005. He recalled first reading about the issue in the July 27, 1987, issue of Sports Illustrated, which carried a full-cover shot of an angry pit bull baring its teeth. Across the top, it said “BEWARE OF THIS DOG.”
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