WATERBURY, Conn. - Jean Reyes de Gonzalez worked amid death for years, taking calls from hospitals and police in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
She tackled tough cases, working with unclaimed bodies whose families could or would not make posthumous accommodations. Occasionally, she coordinated with organ procurement organizations for organ donors. She knew the ropes of what happened when people died.
When her 32-year-old husband suffered a sudden, fatal aortic aneurysm in 2000, she fought through her shock and despair to fulfill what she said was his wish to donate his organs. Because John Amato died of an aortic aneurysm, he was not a candidate for organ donation -- people die in a manner that makes organ donation a viable option only about 300 times a year in New England.
Usually, such situations involve people who were on ventilators because it allows their organs to continue receiving oxygen. Still, Gonzalez acquiesced when LifeChoice Donor Services and a tissue bank approached her about harvesting her husband's tissue: bones, ligaments, corneas and the like.
Gonzalez took a tough, 4 a.m. call hours after Amato was pronounced dead, answering a litany of screening questions, some so personal she fought the urge to hang up the phone. She knew from her job that they needed to take a deeply personal health history in order to clear her husband's body to be cultivated to help others.
Little did Gonzalez know how significant that act would become in her life.
First came the horror of suddenly losing her husband. A month later, Gonzalez faced physical incapacitation and limitations. She woke one morning alone with a searing pain in her left arm. Initially she shrugged it off, chalking it up to a physical manifestation of her grief.
"By the end of the day, I was carrying my arm around," recalled the 53-year-old Waterbury mother of two, describing an extremity that swelled cartoonishly large. She expected the physicians to send her home as a psychosomatic patient, but about a month after becoming widowed, doctors diagnosed a pinched nerve and herniated disk. She would need surgery to shore up her damaged spine with bone from a cadaver if she wanted to permanently fix the problem.
She scheduled the operation for a few months later, lamenting that this had to happen in the wake of Amato's death.
"Why couldn't this happen before John died, because then I would have someone to help me," she recalled thinking as she described an incision that would be made in the front of her lower neck and a replacement of her damaged section of spine with a bone graft, followed by weeks in casts and therapy.
Her husband ended up helping her through the operation in a way nobody expected.
In the weeks before her scheduled surgery, Gonzalez thought often about the bones her husband donated. Though three months had passed, on a whim Gonzalez called the organ procurement organization to ask about her late husband's donated tissue.
The group put her in touch with the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, which had received Amato's bones.
Her husband's bones were in final quarantine, part of a three-month process to ensure donated tissue is safe, they told the widow and her doctor, and it was possible to use the bones. Gonzalez delayed her surgery in order to have her late husband's bone, rather than a stranger's, implanted in her neck.
She knew the surgery would be painful, but Gonzalez almost looked forward to it.
She and Amato had been married 2 1/2 years, and she fretted that the memory of the man she loved might dim with time.
"I was actually excited because at least, in a sense, I have a token of him and his presence with me," said Gonzalez, a petite woman with a sleek, short head of steely salt-and-pepper hair and a quick smile.
She recovered from the surgery and today lives an active and normal life which includes regularly speaking about organ and tissue donation. She attends gatherings, sometimes as a member of a donor family, other times she attends as a tissue recipient.
Gonzalez is believed one of the few, if not the only, people to become the inadvertent beneficiary of a decision to donate a loved one's body.
"I happen to know a lot about my donor," she tells groups.
Organ donation may get the most glory for the dramatic way a kidney or heart can save someone from death, but tissue donations makes a substantial difference in the quality of life for an increasing number of people, said Sean Fitzpatrick, director of public affairs for the New England Organ Bank.
Last year, there were about 25,000 organ transplants and more than 1 million tissue transplants.