The occasion was an emotional, first-time meeting between two families - one from Magnolia and one from a small town in Montana - who are now forever linked by a transplanted heart.
Magnolian Kari Ann Kroeger was the donor of the heart. She died at the age of 28 on Oct. 12, 2000, "following a tragic accident while in the hospital," said her mother, Jennifer Kroeger.
Annie Sorley, who lives with her family in Wolf Point, Mont., was the transplant recipient. Sorley was nervous as she waited for the Kroegers in front of the Magnolia's Bookstore on a bench dedicated to the memory of Kari Ann.
"It's scary," she said, clutching a bouquet of flowers she brought to give to the Kroegers.
Jennifer Kroeger admitted she also was nervous about the meeting.
"You want to be appropriate," she later said in a telephone interview. But the nervousness evaporated as the two women met and hugged for a long, long time.
The two families later went to a Village coffee shop and spent around an hour and a half talking, Jennifer said.
Making contact difficult
It took a long time before Sorley and Jennifer Kroeger worked up enough courage to make contact with each other, they said.
"I did write a letter to them thanking them. It was the hardest letter I've ever written," Sorley said.
The letter wasn't written in one sitting, though.
"My new heart started beating on Friday, Oct. 13, on a full moon," she said, adding that she started a letter to the Kroegers around Thanksgiving that year.
She wrote another paragraph after Christmas, but it took another year and a half before she finished the letter, Sorley said.
Her letter was anonymous, following protocols established by the LifeCenter Northwest Donor Network, a Bellevue-based nonprofit group that matches donated organs from Washington, Alaska, Northern Idaho and Montana to recipients locally and nationwide.
LifeCenter also acts as a clearinghouse and passes on letters between organ recipients and donor families, and both have to express an interest in contacting each other before the organization releases their names, said spokeswoman Jill Steinhaus.
"We ask for both families to say it's OK to release information. The goal is to take LifeCenter out of the loop," she added. "It used to be discouraged," Steinhaus said of contacts, "because nobody was sure how [donor] families would react."
Although that policy has changed, making contact still wasn't easy for the Kroegers. Jennifer said she received the anonymous letter last spring from Sorley, who wrote that she would be available for a meeting if the Kroegers felt comfortable with the idea.
Jennifer said she filled out the necessary forms, got Sorley's name and address and finally answered last July.
Steinhaus said the national standard is a year before recipients and donor families should meet, but in Washington the minimum is six months, or sooner on a case-by-case basis.
Jennifer said she and Sorley exchanged e-mails and spoke on the phone. The two families were finally able to meet on Oct. 14, while Sorley was in town with her husband and daughter for tests at the University of Washington Medical Center, where the heart was transplanted.
Kacey Kroeger, one of Kari's two sisters, found it difficult to describe her feelings about the meeting.
"It's so overwhelming, it's just kind of not real," she said.
Kacey has spent her entire life in Magnolia and had always lived with Kari. Kacey obviously misses Kari, but she's also proud of her sister. "The fact that my sister was able to give someone life, that was incredible."
Besides a heart, Kari also donated a kidney, pancreas and liver, Jennifer said. She doesn't know who the recipients of the other three organs are, although she understands that they live in the Northwest, the south and on the East Coast. She'd like to find out more.
"When I responded to Annie's letter, I sent a general 'Dear recipient' letter, which LifeCenter forwarded to them," Jennifer said of a step she took to initiate contact.
There has been no reply so far, she said. Kacey is also curious.
"I really, really want to meet the other people," she said, "just to see that they're doing well and that [the transplants] made a difference in their lives."
That might not happen.
"Some families never reach out," Steinhaus said, adding that some recipients suffer from feelings of guilt. "It's a really tough situation to be in."
Coincidence also links Sorley and the Kroegers. Both Kari and Sorley have Ann in their names, while Kari's best friend is named Carmen and Sorley's daughter is named Carmen, Sorley said. She also noted that Kari's funeral service took place on the birthday of Sorley's mother.
The Kroegers are Norwegian, and the family of Sorley's husband is Norwegian, she said. Unbeknownst to the Kroegers, Sorley said she recuperated in Magnolia following the transplant surgery, as well.
Kacey also pointed out another seeming link between Sorley and Kari. Sorley wore a turtleneck sweater to the meeting. "My sister always wore turtlenecks," Kacey said.
Donor and recipient families often find they have much in common, said Deborah Clise-Kerr, a LifeCenter family-services coordinator who worked with the Kroegers.
"It's not an uncommon occurrence," she said. "Things do come up, unexplained things. Sometimes it's astounding."
Making the call
Like many people, the Kroegers have all indicated on their drivers' licenses that they are organ donors, Jennifer said. However, that's only the first step.
"Having 'Organ Donor' on the license doesn't mean anything without the family's OK," said Steinhaus from LifeCenter.
In the Kroegers' case, they were already in the hospital with Kari because she was having an operation, Jennifer said. Then her daughter died, and the call had to be made as to whether her organs should be donated.
"The decision wasn't that difficult because Kari was so giving," Jennifer said.
The hard part was letting go, according to Jennifer. Still, the Kroegers had to jump through more than a few paperwork hoops before a surgical team could proceed.
"It's a huge process if you're a donor family," Jennifer said.
"LifeCenter is a pretty good organization to work with," Kacey said.
But she also said the hospital and LifeCenter could have worked more closely together.
"We definitely had to do a lot on our own to make it happen," said Kacey, who added she was the one who first called LifeCenter about donating her sister's organs.
Making the decision helped ease their minds, Jennifer said.
"As difficult a time as it was for us, it brought us some comfort to know we would be able to bring life to other people."
Jennifer remembers placing her hand on Kari's chest so she could feel her daughter's heartbeat as she was wheeled into the operating room. She also remembers telling herself after Kari died that she would feel her daughter's heart beating again.
Thanks to the graciousness of Sorley, Jennifer got her wish last week.