ANTIOCH -- Kristi Ouimet was cooking dinner, her phone within arm's reach. With every buzzing text notification, she would peek at the incoming message. One caused her to do a double take.
It was from a woman named Maggie, asking Kristi to check her Facebook inbox. Kristi did. The message she found there caused tears to roll down her cheeks. Dinner quickly became an afterthought.
"What are you saying, Maggie?" Kristi wrote back. "Did my son receive your son's organs?"
A few feet away sat Matthew Ouimet, Kristi's 2-year-old son who in June received a life-sustaining liver and kidney transplant from a deceased donor.
"Why is mommy sad?" he asked.
"Mommy's happy," Kristi told him. "We have new friends."
The Ouimets have made a lot of new friends since Matthew was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure when he was 5 months old, and placed on six-days-a-week dialysis while he awaited a transplant. Some have offered support, both emotional and financial. Many have donated blood in Matthew's honor. A few, inspired by Matthew's story, have decided to donate a deceased loved one's organs.
Meeting Matthew's donor family was something Kristi Ouimet had prayed for. She had the perfect shirt for the occasion, one that read: "The greatest hero I never knew was the organ donor who saved my son's life."
On Friday morning, three days after the revelatory email exchange, Maggie knocked on the front door of the Antioch home of Kristi and Kelly Ouimet. Kristi opened the door, and without a word being spoken, the two women, one whose son had been lost, the other whose son had been saved, held each other in a long, tearful embrace.
After hugging Kelly, Maggie met Matthew. Knowing the toddler's affinity for Mickey Mouse, she wore a Disneyland jacket and Mickey Mouse slippers. He wore a T-shirt that read, "I'm awesome."
"You are awesome, sweetheart," Maggie told him.
Maggie's son Brandon -- she asked that their last names and hometown not be published -- was 22 when he was critically injured May 30 in a single-car accident. An Army vet and college student, Brandon was described by his mother as free-spirited, fun-loving and someone who wanted to help people on a global scale.
Maggie has a husband, four other children and four stepchildren. After the accident, the family set up a vigil in the intensive care unit.
"Our whole crew was there," she said. "One minute we were crying, the next minute we're cracking up. The nurses liked seeing that, the way we came together as a family."
When Brandon died June 2, his family decided to have his organs donated, only to find out he already had registered himself as an organ and tissue donor. His organs saved the lives of five people.
"He served our country," Kelly Ouimet said. "And even in passing he continues to serve."
Maggie and her family were told the age and gender of the five recipients. On June 6, a friend of Maggie's sister-in-law recalled seeing a news report about Matthew's surgery. She sent the link to Maggie, who quickly understood that Matthew was one of the recipients.
"We've prayed for you guys ever since," she told Kristi and Kelly.
It took almost five months for the families to connect. One reason was because Maggie spent the first month after Brandon's death "in a fog."
Even when donor families or recipients are emotionally ready to reach out, they must follow a strict protocol. Recipients wishing to contact donor families must send correspondence to a transplant center (there are four in the Bay Area) which forwards the correspondence to an Organ Procurement Organization (there are two in Northern California). The OPO delivers the correspondence. The recipient decides whether or not to respond. The process is reversed for donor families wishing to contact recipients.
The process can be lengthy. That Maggie knew of Matthew and of Kristi's Facebook page helped her expedite the process. When they finally met, it was clear they had more in common than transplanted organs: extended, supportive families, strong faith and the desire for people to help one another.
"We're so glad you're the family that you are," Kristi told Maggie. "You're a lot like us."
"Had we met under other circumstances, we'd still be friends," Maggie said. "This is going to be an addition to my family."
Kristi Ouimet has nearly 1,900 Facebook friends and followers. The messages they send her are uplifting and supportive. In five cases they have been heart-rending, people contacting her to say that Matthew's story inspired them to donate the organs of a deceased loved one.
Bay Area resident Sabrina Vasquez and her mother followed Matthew's story on Facebook. On Sept. 13, Vasquez's mother, Rebecca Noia Tillery, 48, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Shortly after her passing, Vasquez and her two brothers were asked if they wanted to donate their mother's organs for transplantation.
"We all had a meeting and decided that's what we were going to do," Vasquez said. "The thing that made me decide is we all followed Matthew's story. When the time came, I thought of that and it helped. And actually, she saved four people's lives."
Vasquez already has heard from a 35-year-old Bay Area woman, married with kids, who got one of her mother's kidneys.
"She told me about herself and how happy she was," said Vasquez, whose daughter turned 1 three weeks after her mom's passing, and who has taken in her 12-year-old sister. It brings her comfort, she said, to know her mom lives on in others.
"She was awesome," Vasquez said. "She was one of the strongest people I know. She worked at the school cafeteria, so she was really good with children. She was about us kids and my daughter, her grandbaby, and her family. She was the type who would give the shirt off her back if somebody needed it."
For Kristi and Kelly Ouimet, these stories affirm their decision to go public with Matthew's journey and put a face on organ donation.
"It's remarkable," Kristi said, "and it's a little addicting. Because now that I've had so many people contact me, I want more. And I know that it can happen."
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, from January to July there were 16,670 transplant surgeries in the United States. As of Monday, there were 77,166 active transplant candidates. So awareness remains a work in progress.
As does Mathew's medical care. He has been readmitted to UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital several times, and was admitted again Tuesday, as doctors continue to adjust his anti-rejection medication and try to improve blood flow to his liver. Matthew is still fed through a tube in his stomach because he has to learn how to chew and swallow. Two weeks ago he fell and broke his left arm.
It didn't stop him from romping around the house during Maggie's visit.
"I can see Brandon running right there with him," she said, smiling. "He was just a big kid."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.