The combined family: back from left, Doug Jerdo, Debbie Jerdo, Linda Buttery, Pam Drollette, Rich Drollette, front from left, Robby Drollette, Lisa Szewczyk, Harold “Junie” Tart, Leslie Cowty and Aliceson Drollette.
It was a family reunion between people who had never met.
However, around the coffee table at Rich and Pam Drollette’s home Nov. 4, people who were once strangers talked as if they were old friends.
The story of what brought them together is a familiar one in the North Country that centers around family patriarch Harold “Junie” Tart, who had cancer of the liver in 2003.
“At the time, there wasn’t actually an option for me,” Tart said. “Pam contacted doctors and doctors and no one would do anything.”
Eventually, they found a doctor in Chicago who examined Tart in July and said that he would operate, which would require a liver transplant.
On Aug. 12, 2003, Linda Reilly, who lived in the Chicago area, was taking her new motorcycle on its maiden ride. According to her sister, Leslie Cowty, she had purchased the bike the day before.
“I got the call and I didn’t even know that she had a motorcycle,” Cowty said.
The call was informing her that Reilly had been in an accident with her bike.
“They told us it was serious, but they thought it would be okay, that she may have to learn to walk again but was going to recover,” Cowty said. “Then we started getting conflicting reports from the doctors. On Aug. 20, they did the brain scans which showed that she was brain dead.”
“We had to make the decision to take her off life support, and it was probably the toughest two days ever,” sister Lisa Szewczyk said. “She was not letting go, she was being Linda.”
A few weeks prior, Linda had told her family that if something were to happen to her, she wanted her organs to be donated. After her death, doctors were able to use both of her kidneys and her spleen.
They were also able to use her liver.
"In July we had went out with Dad when we found out that he was a candidate for a transplant, but the first one came back as a false positive test,” Drollette said. “I flew back to Willsboro, but he stayed out there, then we got the call a second time.”
Tart received his new liver Aug. 24, 2003.
“When I knew that my father was receiving a liver, my thoughts went right to the family,” Debbie Jerdo said.
Jerdo and her husband, Doug, knew the pain that they had to be going through because 15 months prior, they had lost their daughter to meningitis.
“Our thoughts were on the loss, but also the gift that was given.”
As is the case with transplants, donors and their families remain anonymous to the recipient, as do they to the donor.
Cowty said that her family had gone through the Gift of Hope Foundation, a group that helps hospitals make matches for organs.
“We couldn’t make the first contact,” Szewczyk said.
All the organization had told them is what had been used to help save the lives of four people.
“The organization told us to not be surprised if no one contacts us because in some cases, they feel guilty that someone had to pass on in order for them to survive,” Cowty said.
Eventually, a letter came from a family thanking them for the gift they had given.
“It’s not pain when you see those letters,” Szewczyk said. “It’s knowing good came out of a bad situation.”
For Junie’s family, the decision to reach out to the family that had made the decision to donate the organs was made in part from their experiences.
“We had a lot of loss in our immediate family,” Jerdo said. “We had learned that how we respond to loss is by keeping our loved ones alive by talking about them.”
So, Tart’s family reached out and received a letter back. The two sides communicates once again, and that is when the stories of Junie Tart and the family of Linda Reilly came together.
"You had to have corresponded with each other at least twice before they will let the families had open communication,” Szewczyk said. “We responded to each other a few times, but then we lost contact for several years.”
That changed when Szewczyk and her sister received a card from Drollette on the anniversary of her father’s surgery, Aug. 24 of this year.
“I got the card and I wrote back and it evolved into me asking Leslie if she wanted to go to New York,” Szewczyk said.
For Cowty, it was a more difficult decision.
“When the letters were coming in, I was the one that could not handle it,” she said. “My first reaction was, what are we going to say.”
On Nov. 2, Cowty and Szewczyk landed at the Burlington International Airport, just moments after Linda Buttery, another of Tart’s daughters.
“We met, hugged each other and immediately started sharing,” Buttery said. “It was really awesome. I am a gabber, especially when I get nervous, and we just talked and talked.”
Over the next three days, the two families got to know each other, talk about Linda Reilly and the life that Junie Tart has had thanks to his new liver.
“I feel a lot better because I feel that her liver went to the perfect person,” Cowty said about Tart. “He is hilarious, a super down-to-earth person and has an amazing family.”
“You do not understand why things happen the when they do, but then you go through this and it kind of makes sense,” Szewczyk said.
“It’s priceless,” Drollette said about the visit. “It was such a hard journey to get to this point. I feel like these two have become my sisters. Since the first time I got off the phone with Lisa, I told my husband that I felt like I had known her forever.”
Drollette said that she was also happy that her children - daughter Aliceson and son Robby - had been able to meet the people whose sister had helped their grandfather.
“Aliceson has bonded with both of them just in the short time they have been here,” Drollette said.
For Tart, the initial nerves of meeting the sisters soon vanished.
“I was a little nervous at first,” Tart said. “After I got to meet them and get to talk with them, I was not so nervous.”
“I think he likes ‘em,” Drollette said.