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Worthington double lung transplant recipient meets her donor’s family

Brittany Olson (left) is pictured with Jana Vento and Brianna Baxter. Together they hold a picture of Felicia Baxter, who was the organ donor for Olson's double lung transplant. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — For two families from two different time zones, Feb. 10, 2017 will forever be the tragic, yet miraculous day that connects them.

It was on that day that Felicia Baxter, a 17-year-old high school senior from Pasco County, Florida, died, eight days after she suffered serious injuries as the passenger in a rollover car crash.

Several hours later, Brittany Olson, a 27-year-old Worthington resident in dire need of a double lung transplant, was taken off the waiting list at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C. and underwent surgery.

Olson, who’s struggled with cystic fibrosis her whole life and needed to find a donor before her lung function completely failed, now inhales and exhales freely — through Felicia’s lungs.

‘We have to help people’

As a single mom, Jana Vento and her daughters, Felicia and Brianna, 16, were “the three amigos.” The tight knit team did everything together.

“She was my hero, my idol,” Brianna said. “I looked up to her because she did everything, and she did everything 100 percent. If she set her mind to it, she would do it.”

An excellent student, Felicia “flipped out” if she got anything less than an A in a class. She was involved in seemingly everything, including school band and several clubs.

“She wanted to do so many things, she changed her mind every day,” Brianna said. “She wanted to be a U.S. History teacher because she loved history, she wanted to be a math teacher because she loved math, she wanted to be a horse trainer … I don’t know why. She wanted to go to school as a video game designer because she loved art. She did a lot.”

Felicia and Vento had previously had conversations about donating organs, with Felicia insisting she be an organ donor.

“I didn’t understand it, because I had never been a registered organ donor,” Vento said. “She said ‘Mom, we have to help people. What am I gonna do with it?’ That’s just the kind of person she was. She always helped everybody.”

When doctors asked Vento if Felicia’s organs should be donated, she was confident in her response.

‘There’s just that bond’

Wanting to know more about the lives of those who been impacted, Vento reached out to families of the organ donor recipients and eventually received several short letters back expressing thanks and condolences.

Olson’s letter was different. It was long, expressed interest about Felicia’s family and included a photo. Soon after, Vento and Olson’s family began communicating on Facebook, and they agreed they had to meet in-person.

Vento and Brianna visited Worthington on Saturday and are staying through this Saturday. They had a grill-out on Sunday and planned to take part in various activities, including strawberry picking, throughout the week.

“It feels like I’ve known them forever,” Vento said. “There’s just that bond.”

Olson plans to travel to Florida to speak with Vento at a conference for those who have lost organ donors. It would be something new, as the family of donors and recipients rarely appear together at such events.

The transplant will forever bond the two families, and for Olson, the fateful call that an organ donor was found will always be a bittersweet moment.

“For me, it was life or death to where I was going to die without a lung transplant and that was my only option to try and beat cystic fibrosis just a little longer,” Olson said. “We were excited on my end, but at the same time we knew somebody had to die for me to live.”

Vento doesn’t believe Olson needs to feel guilty at all.

“She didn’t die for this, she was already going to go, this is just a gift she gave to somebody else so they could live,” she said.

Now Vento does everything she can to honor her daughter. She raises money for the local high school band where Felicia was the pit leader, and offers a special package for families of organ donors at the local hospital. She and Brianna go to concerts and events they never would have gone to before.

“We do lots of things to honor her because we want her to still be around, so that’s why it’s important to do what I think she would have wanted,” Vento said. “Felicia’s friends wear bracelets to honor her, too — they take them to college and take them on trips, so she can be with them.”

The loss will never go away, but Brianna and Vento take solace in the fact that Felicia was able to help others.

“I would love to have her back just so the two could meet and have their bond,” Brianna said. “But I wouldn’t ever take the lungs away from her just to have Felicia back, because this is something she always wanted to do, to help somebody, no matter what it was.”

In the end, Felicia helped a lot of people — a whopping 69 families and counting between organ, bone and tissue donations.

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