There’s a famous quote from author Ralph Waldo Emerson that many advocates and people forever changed by organ and tissue donations often cite, which says, “The only gift is a portion of thyself.”
The line, taken from Emerson’s 1844 essay “Gifts,” is a reminder that the best gifts don’t cost any money. Instead, one’s time, compassion and kindness – truly one’s “self” – is the ultimate act of love.
For former Durango resident and Park Elementary School teacher Beth Brunso, who died in December 2016, and the woman who would go on to receive her lungs, and subsequently, a second chance at life, the sentiment becomes even more literal and meaningful.
“Beth was always helping others first,” said Sven Brunso, Beth’s husband. “And now I think it’s amazing for someone to have a piece of Beth that allows them to breathe. It reminds us she’s still giving to this day.”
It’s been a little more than a year since Beth Brunso, a Durango resident since the early 1990s known for countless volunteer hours and a career dedicated to education, died on Dec. 26, 2016.
Brunso’s death was ruled a suicide. She was 48 years old, leaving behind her husband, Sven, and two children, Stowe and Aspen.
But as Brunso’s death came as a shock to her family and the community at large, there was no way of knowing that across the state, another woman, also close to death, would end up continuing Brunso’s legacy of giving.
“I was sick all the time and I couldn’t even enjoy life anymore,” said Mallory Fagerstedt, 31, who lives in Pueblo. “I told my doctor I was done.”
Around 2010, Fagerstedt, 23 at the time, started to feel pains in her chest and was constantly short of breath. By all accounts a healthy and active young person, Fagerstedt began having trouble just walking up the stairs.
After visiting a cardiologist, Fagerstedt was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which affects arteries in the lungs and the right side of the heart, and can cause shortness of breath and chest pressure.
Fagerstedt was put on medication, and for a time, she started to feel better. In 2011, she met Zach Fagerstedt, and married him the next year, taking on a motherly role with his daughter, Bella. Overall, Fagerstedt felt good.
But in 2016, her health took a sharp decline, causing her to rely on an oxygen tank. It was then that Fagerstedt told her doctor she wanted to pursue the most extreme form of medication for her condition: a lung transplant.
On Oct. 5, 2016, Fagerstedt was put on the list.
“I was scared, nervous, excited,” she said. “But it was a waiting game. I could get a call anytime. I was on pins and needles.”
Fagerstedt received that call Dec. 27, a day after Brunso’s death. She and her family rushed to University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, and the next day, she was in surgery, receiving a pair of lungs.
“The next thing I knew, I woke up in ICU and I had these new lungs,” Fagerstedt said. “I was in a lot of pain, but I knew then I could start over and have a new life.”
Fagerstedt spent the next couple of months recovering, rebuilding her stricken body after it had dropped to 80 pounds. In April, she was told she could write the family of the donor, and immediately took to the idea.
“I was curious to know what my donor was like, their favorite color, if they were right-handed or left-handed, just basic things like that,” she said. “I understood if the family didn’t want to reach out to me right away, but I wanted them to know I thought of them all the time.”
Andrea Smith, director of communications for the Donor Alliance, a federally designated nonprofit that facilitates organ and tissue donations, said the organization gives donors and recipients the option of contacting one another.
The Donor Alliance acts as a sort of middleman until both parties agree to disclose their contact information. While every situation is different, on average about 30 to 40 percent of people involved in organ-donor cases decide to get in touch.
“It can be, and often is, beneficial for both parties when they are in a place where they feel like they’re ready to open themselves up,” Smith said. “It can be a very powerful relationship.”
At first, Fagerstedt didn’t get a response from Brunso’s family. But on June 19, a letter from Beth’s mother, Janice, arrived, which was filled with information about Beth – that she was a marathon runner, attended college at Arizona State University and was always a giving person.
But then the conservation soon turned to each other’s personal lives, such as Fagerstedt’s recovery progress and how the family was dealing with Brunso’s loss. Without knowing it, they were both helping each other down the path to healing.
“They’re like my new family,” Fagerstedt said. “I think they feel better knowing Beth is still a part of me. Even though Beth is gone and not physically here, she’s still inside me and breathing. I’m still carrying her with me every day.”
More than a year since Brunso’s death, Sven said he and his kids, now 17 and 19, have been overwhelmed by the amount of support from the community.
“We’re figuring out our new life together,” he said. “But I think we’ve made it over the hump.”
Sven said the family’s relationship with Fagerstedt has helped in the healing process. There was never any question that they wanted to know who received Beth’s lungs, or any other of the recipients of her organs, he said.
“It reminds us that Beth is still here and she’s still giving,” Sven said. “Beth lives on through Mallory.”
Recently, Fagerstedt was sent a letter Brunso herself had written to her mom. In it was Brunso’s signature. After seeing the signature, Fagerstedt, with approval of her doctor, got a tattoo of it on her wrist.
“I know it may sound stupid, but I talk to her sometimes, just for her to know that I care and think about her all the time,” she said. “There’s not a day I don’t think about her. She’s my angel.”
Fagerstedt, an organ donor herself, is now a strong advocate of donations.
According to the Donor Alliance, more than 2,500 people in Colorado and Wyoming are on the wait list for a life-saving organ transplant. One donor can save up to eight lives through organ donations, and save or heal up to 75 lives through eye and tissue donation.
“Life is different when you see the end of your life coming,” she said. “I can’t be mad at people for long anymore, and I can’t regret anything. I have a second chance, and I’m only here for so long.”
Fagerstedt wasn’t the only person to receive a donation from Beth. Sven said there were eight other successful donations, which included a corneal transplant, a spinal fusion, a kidney transplant, and even a heart valve to a newborn baby.
“It always makes me smile to see a very selfless decision Beth made give someone else the gift of life,” he said. “Her generosity and spirit of giving lives on.”