By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
McKenzie Leichtnam was known as the life of the party. The organizer. The jokester.
“An all-around cool kid.”
These memories and more floated around the first-floor boardroom at Riley Hospital for Children on Wednesday, as the young man’s family reunited with hospital team members who played a big part in McKenzie’s life.
The Carmel native who received a heart transplant at just 13 days old passed away in his sleep at the age of 20, leaving an unbearable hole in the lives of those who loved him.
But he also left so much joy. So much love.
It was written on the faces of those who gathered to honor McKenzie for his final gift.
PAYING IT FORWARD
In death, the young man who benefited from an organ donation two decades earlier paid it forward – donating tissue that would help others heal.
That’s what drew representatives from Indiana Donor Network to join McKenzie’s parents, Paul and Collette, and his sister, Kelsey, at Riley last week.
There, they shared hugs, handshakes and memories with Riley heart surgeons Dr. John Brown and Dr. Mark Turrentine, who performed McKenzie’s transplant in 1990 when the pediatric transplant program at Riley was young.
Also there were transplant coordinators Debbie Murphy and Regina Rossetter, Echo technician Jennifer Johnson, longtime ICU nurse Debbie Kilpatrick, EKG technician Susan Gude and others.
Cardiologists Dr. Robert Darragh and Dr. Randy Caldwell (retired) weren’t able to attend the event, but they deserve much of the credit for McKenzie’s two decades of good health, according to Dr. Brown.
Surgeons are there for the intense part of care, but cardiologists see the patients regularly throughout the year, closely monitoring their heart function, Dr. Brown said.
TOURNAMENT OF ROSES PARADE
Indiana Donor Network requested the reunion last week as a way to honor McKenzie in advance of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, next month.
The 2023 Donate Life Rose Parade float will feature 44 memorial floragraphs honoring donor heroes (including McKenzie) from across the nation who have given the gift of life.
A floragraph is a portrait of a deceased donor created with organic materials such as spices, seeds and flowers.
McKenzie’s floragraph was on display at Wednesday’s gathering, with only the eyebrows to finish. His family will have that honor, according to Lindsey Johnson, community outreach coordinator for Indiana Donor Network.
The organization is hosting the Leichtnam family in Pasadena for the parade Jan. 2.
“We are very excited to have the Leichtnams attend to be a part of honoring McKenzie, help decorate the float and to meet other beautiful donor families,” Johnson said, adding that people who will be riding on the float are organ recipients and those walking alongside it are living donors – those who have given a kidney or part of a liver.
“The purpose is to inspire people to say yes to organ donation.”
HER LIFE’S WORK
Kelsey Leichtnam believes in the cause so much she went to work for Indiana Donor Network after her brother passed away in 2011.
It’s her way of honoring his memory and paying it forward.
She said it is not lost on her family that so many of McKenzie’s care team either still work at Riley or returned to the hospital for the reunion.
“We feel really honored to have had your continued support throughout this whole journey,” she told the assembled group. “I hope that your work is a little inspired by McKenzie, given that he was one of your first pediatric transplants. The fact that you’ve never forgotten him really means a lot.”
Kelsey was just 20 months old when her brother received his hero heart as a newborn at Riley, so she has no memories of that time. But she does recall riding through the halls in a red wagon and getting stickers during his follow-up visits.
“Riley to me is a safe place,” she said. “It’s been a big source of comfort – all the good stuff happened here.”
She has great affection for the Riley team who cared for her brother, including Dr. Darragh, who attended her wedding just two weeks ago. And she makes sure to reach out when her job as a hospital liaison for IDN brings her to Riley.
“A SWEET SOUL”
Debbie Murphy, who became very close to the family as transplant coordinator, has a soft spot in her heart for McKenzie and all the young patients she has helped over decades in her role.
“He was just a delightful little boy and young man,” she said. “Just a sweet soul.”
Paul Leichtnam said his son led an extremely good life. He was a huge sports nut, playing everything but tackle football, and excelling at golf. He got to attend a World Series game featuring his beloved Boston Red Sox and a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers.
When he passed away, he had just completed a campus visit to Indiana University, where he planned to transfer after two years at Vincennes University.
“He was very excited,” his dad recalled.
That night, he went to sleep and never woke up, leaving his family devastated, but also determined to keep his memory alive.
“He is part of all our gatherings,” Leichtnam said. “We talk about him all the time. And we try to pay it forward.”
In addition to raising money for Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Riley Children’s Foundation (by sponsoring two Riley red wagons), they advocate for organ donation.
They will never forget that another family decades ago made the decision to donate their child’s organs so that McKenzie could live.
And while they would have wished for more time, they are forever grateful for the 20 years they had together as a family.
McKenzie’s life was filled with an abundance of love, his sister said.
“His laugh was infectious. His jokes were hilarious. His love was once in a lifetime.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com