Despair and emptiness mixed with joy and thanks Monday during an emotional public meeting of two families whose lives became indelibly entwined with the sudden death of a vibrant young woman.
Sharing a conference room at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville with nurses, doctors and well-wishers was the Swart family of Cedar Lake, Indiana, still stung by the loss last fall of their daughter, Ashley, and Melody McIntosh, who, on her 41st birthday, received the woman's heart.
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"She never knew me, but I know her," said McIntosh, whose voice broke often while telling the story. "I'm going to live every day of my life honoring her memory."
A red-eyed Swart family -- Kelly and Jeff and their two sons -- sat in the front of the room but didn't take the podium. Instead, McIntosh read a statement on their behalf.
"We are thankful that she has allowed Melody to live a wonderful life with a 20-year-old heart, the best heart in the whole world," a teary McIntosh said.
The family was still torn by the death of the Purdue University student, who had just turned 20. She had been at a friend's house last September and, without any sign or symptoms, died of a brain aneurysm.
"She was absolutely wonderful -- loving, caring, bright, bubbly," a sobbing Kelly Swart said. Her daughter also was an organ donor -- her liver, kidneys and pancreas would help three other people.
By that time, McIntosh, who lives on the Great Lakes Naval base, had been on a transplant recipient list for nine months. Her failing heart had been kept beating by a temporary pump called a left ventricular assist device, which is considered a bridge to a transplant.
"Certain things happen on my birthday. I hit the wall on Sept. 29, 2012, and (on the same date) in 2013, I received the biggest gift," she said.
In the first instance, McIntosh became so ill the medical staff at Condell asked her husband, Arthur, if he had considered her as an organ donor.
"She was almost gone," he said.
Melody McIntosh said she had surgery for a leaky heart valve in June 2012. She was working as an administrator at the James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center that September when she became ill. At her doctor's office in Libertyville, she got worse and suffered a heart attack.
"As she was talking, she passed out," said Mohammad Bawani, her gastroenterologist. "We started an IV and called an ambulance."
She was admitted to Advocate Condell where she stayed several weeks in intensive care.
"I celebrated my 40th birthday in here on a ventilator, completely unresponsive," she said.
A defibrillator was implanted and she rallied.
The left ventricular assist device was implanted that December at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
"She was extremely sick," said Ray Helm, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Condell who implanted the defibrillator. "She needed a transplant."
She got a call last September notifying her of a possible match and was told to get ready.
"I wondered, where did this incredible gift come from? I was so sick and I needed a heart," McIntosh said.
The transplant was done on her birthday.
Kelly Swart said the family didn't know anything about the recipients of her daughter's organs. About two months later, she contacted Gift of Hope, the organ and tissue donor network, to learn more.
There was correspondence with McIntosh and they spoke in November. They met in person two weeks ago at the Swarts' home in Cedar Lake.
Jeff Swart said he couldn't stop staring at McIntosh.
"It means so much that she really appreciates it," Kelly Swart said.
Monday's public meeting was arranged because McIntosh is moving to her native North Carolina. She said she thinks of Ashley Swart every day, and the relationship with her family will continue.
"I just know I wouldn't be here without the gift she gave me," she said. "I'm just so grateful."