In summer of 2014, Ommy (pictured at left) and Rebecca Irizarry, with their family, were visiting Florida from their hometown near Fort Stewart, GA, to celebrate their wedding anniversary when a tragic accident – a plane crashing onto a Venice, FL beach – took Ommy’s life, as well as their daughter, Oceana’s (below, left), resulting in Ommy becoming a tissue donor and Oceana becoming an organ donor.
Rebecca, an Army combat veteran and a licensed practical nurse, carried out Ommy’s wishes for donation – they had discussed what he wanted – and she made the decision for Oceana to become a donor, because she knew Oceana would want that as well, even though they had not discussed it. A year and a half after the accident, LifeLink of Florida and LifeLink of Georgia partnered to honor Ommy and Oceana on the Donate Life Rose Parade Float, which appeared in the nationally televised Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. The Irizarry’s traveled to Pasadena, CA, to attend the parade, as well as events surrounding the parade – where they spent time with other donor families, met transplant recipients and helped decorate the Donate Life float. Florida and Georgia media covered this story, so they also covered their Rose Parade experiences …and as a result, the parents of the recipient of Oceana’s liver put two and two together and reached out to Rebecca. We helped them navigate early communication.
Labor Day weekend of 2016 the Irizarry’s story came full circle when Rebecca put her arms around seven-year-old Branden McNaughton, who is alive today thanks to the liver transplant he received from Oceana Irizarry. The two families, the Irizarry’s and the McNaughton’s, got together in the Bradenton area, spent time getting to know each other and enjoyed some fun in the sun. Rebecca and Kelsey now consider each other family. Kelsey calls Rebecca Brandon Jr.’s “soul mother” for having given him life with her decision about donation.
The below text is excerpted from Rebecca’s own words regarding her experience with donation:
It is safe to say when I made the decision to donate Ommy and Oceana’s tissue and organs, I was in a state of shock. We were on vacation for our anniversary when a plane literally fell from the air onto my family. That day and the days to follow seem like a blur, although every choice I made was informed and deliberate. A million thoughts raced through my head – conversations Ommy had with me where he would speak of what he wanted if he were to die – the memory of me hushing him repeatedly because that thought was too much for me to bear, but what came out of my mouth was simply, yes. Yes, of course. This is one hundred percent what he wanted and although my sweet angel at nine-years-old was never introduced to the idea of organ and tissue donation, it is what she wanted as well. Through this entire experience, this was the easiest decision to make.
Ommy was a once in a lifetime type of man, the type of man that put himself first by not putting himself first. He would do anything for the ones he loved and whatever he could for complete strangers. He was the type that still stopped on the side of the road to help people out. He had a magnetic personality and to know him, truly was to love him. God, family and love of his country were his priorities. He was an excellent soldier who took his leadership role seriously. He was naturally compassionate and empathetic, and put others’ needs before his own.
Oceana, or Oci, was a caring and selfless girl who was already ahead of her age. Oceana Grace, my little Oci, was an amazing child. Just like her father, she was caring and selfless. She was such a bright child and started to see the “big picture” at a young age. I often had to remind her that she was just a child and not to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. She was a deep-thinker and cared very much for our environment and future. She was in the gifted program in her school and had a sincere love of learning. Oci was imaginative, artistic, loving, and above all, happy. She was a happy soul and brought joy to all who were blessed to know and love her. She loved reading, playing video games, swimming, snorkeling, dancing and spending time with her family and friends. She was her father’s daughter, in that everything they did together was an adventure.
While Oci and her father, Ommy, continue their adventure after life, with the gifts they gave, others can now begin adventures of their own. When I hugged my baby for the last time, if anything were to make letting her go any easier, it was the knowledge that she was going into surgery to have her organs and tissue donated. God did not give me the miracle I asked for that day, but I know Ommy and Oceana’s gifts are the miracles prayed for by so many others in need and those who love them.
The McNaughton's and Irizarry's met face-to-face Labor Day weekend of 2016. Pictured from rear, left: Kelsey and Brandon McNaughton, Rebecca Irizarry. Front row, from left: Liver recipient Brandon Jr., Ava Irizarry (in red) and Brandon's siblings.