GAINESVILLE, FLA (WIS) - It's been more than six years since a Lexington mother lost her only son.
Jesse Gamble was hit and killed by a drunk driver while riding a bicycle home from work over the Blossom Street Bridge in 2008. The bike lane there is now named in the 19-year-old's honor: Jesse's Way. Through his death, Jesse saved the lives of seven people. Last Monday, Jesse's mother met her son's heart recipient.
For the last six years, letters written to Lynn Finley from the recipient and his family were the closest she would be to knowing the man who now holds her son's heart. One letter reads in part:
"To the family who donated the gift of life to me, words cannot express how much your gift of life has meant to me. Your gift of life has truly been a blessing. I hope one day your family will give me the opportunity to thank you in person. Sincerely, Henry."
Florida resident Henry Wyman Harris got that opportunity on February 2, 2015 - exactly six and a half years to the date of the heart transplant. Henry and Lynn met at University of Florida Health, which is where the transplant took place. At the time of the transplant, Harris only knew his donor was a teenage trauma victim. When the two finally met, Finley filled in all the details.
"His name was Jesse Miller Gamble," Finley said. "Jesse was a very free spirit. He was an artist."
Jesse's heart was in his artwork, his family, and his friends. The 19-year-old wanted to be a high school art teacher. His artwork decorates his mother's home, including an unfinished painting of her four cats.
On the night of July 31, 2008, Jesse was riding a bike home from work at Terra Restaurant in West Columbia. He was riding over the Blossom Street bridge when he was hit by a drunk driver. He suffered massive brain trauma. Jesse's young life was cut short while Henry Harris' life hung in the balance.
"I knew I was in bad shape because my heart was only functioning 15 percent," Harris said.
At age 21, Harris was told he had an enlarged heart. He spent the next 36 years working with the Florida Department of Corrections with no problems, but he was forced to retire when his heart and other organs started shutting down. Over the course of the next seven years, he needed a defibrillator and a LVAD to keep him alive.
On Thanksgiving Day 2007, Harris said he flatlined in his doctor's office. He was given only days to live.
"At that time I was so low that I told the wife to go ahead and sell my livestock I had on the farm, to get rid of them because I wasn't able to take care of them," said Harris.
With the help of doctors, medication, and equipment, Harris clung to life. On Aug. 2, 2008, at 64 years old, he got a new heart.
"I had no idea what I was fixing to face," Harris recalled. "Expect the worst, but hope for the best. That was all I could do and pray to God."
Now, he's 70 and living a life that, at one point, he didn't think he'd have.
"I've been able to do what I want to. Go places, be with the family, and also enjoy the grandchildren, three sons. It's been amazing," Harris said.
His heartbeat means everything to him, as he let Finley feel his pulse,
"I can lay in the bed at night and feel it just a-pumpin'," Harris said.
That rhythmic beat is a comforting sound as Lynn listens to her son's heart.
"To feel his heartbeat in Henry and know how strong it is and know that's exactly how Jesse was, he was a very strong-willed person," Finley said.
Knowing her son has helped other people, helps Finley her cope with the loss. Jesse made the decision to be an organ donor just a few years before his death.
"We had a long conversation about it," Finley said, "so I knew he wanted to do that. So, I'm so happy Henry is doing well."
Harris is glad Jesse was a donor despite the tragedy. Now, there is new life and triumph through the tragedy.
"We're just going to be connected for the rest of our time, probably," Harris said.
"I told Henry he's going to live to be 100, I know it," Finley said.
Finley and Harris talk to one another as if they've known each other for years even finishing each other's sentences.
"It's got to be devastating for you, honey," Harris said to Finley.
"It is. I miss him everyday," Finley said.
"But he still lives on through me," Harris responded.
While there may never be closure to losing a child, there is something remarkable about knowing seven other people are thriving because of the generous gift of life. Jesse donated his heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas and liver. As of this story, all recipients are reported to be in good health.
If you would like more information on becoming an organ donor, visit Donate Life SC.