SALISBURY, Md. – It’s a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in July as family and friends gather at a home off Mt. Hermon Rd. in Salisbury. They are here to remember Jake Schertz, the 18-year-old who was hit and killed while riding his bike not far from home June, 2016. Jake is here too and not just in memory.
Jake was an organ donor, a decision he made after much discussion with his mother, Pamela. The decision comes as no surprise for those who knew him. “Kind, caring, and humble,” his father Steve says as he looks closely at four of Jake’s baby pictures stacked together in a frame hanging on the wall beside their front door. “That’s all I can say.”
There are photos of Jake throughout the house. In just about every photo, Jakes smile is on full display. That smile had been paying dividends ever since he was a little boy. An orphan from Ukraine, Jake was adopted by Pam and Steve and brought back to the United States. “The minute I saw him he had that huge smile,” says Pam. “I was like ‘That’s it, I’m done.’”
As family and friends gather, they remember that smile. They remember Jake’s spirit. And, though painful, they reflect on the days surrounding Jake’s death. They think about June 29, 2016, the day Jake was hit by a car while taking his usual bike ride after work. Then they remember June 30th, the day Jake was declared brain-dead. And then, they think about July 2nd, the day Jake gave life to five people.
Which brings us to today, and the annual get-together hosted by Pam and Steve, attended by those who see Jake as a hero. Since Jake’s death, Pam and Steve have been able to connect with four of the five recipients. Perhaps the most emotional connection they’ve made is with Johan Lowie, an artist from Frederick, Md. who received Jake’s heart.
Pam says they had to wait at least six months after the donation to reach out to the recipients. The process is done through a third party to protect the privacy of those involved, should they not want their names to be known to the family of the deceased. Pam and Steve say they had their letters ready the moment they could be sent out.
“We knew his heart was still beating,” said Pam. “We want to hear his heart still beating.”
Connecting with the Schertz family was an easy decision for Lowie, though coming to grips with the tragedy that gave him new life was not nearly as easy.
“I used to go a lot through the notion that ‘why do I live and not Jake?’”, Lowie explains. “That was hard for me in the beginning. Meeting the parents was helpful.”
Linda Ciancaglini, who received Jake’s left lung, lives in New York. This was the first year she’s been able to make the journey to meet the Schertz family in person. Days like today create an uncommon mix of emotions, as feelings of grief and gratitude intersect.
“It’s painful in a way,” says Ciancaglini. “Because I can’t fathom what it would be like to lose a child. Everybody, Jake, his family, Everybody gave up so much.”
No one gave up more than Jake but Pam and Steve carry the burden of grief every day. Jake’s gift; five lives for the terrible price of one. Tears well up in Pam’s eyes as she thinks about that price. “He loved helping people and I know it would have meant more to him that he’s helping other people in the only way he can.”
Though the loss of Jake has created so much sadness around those who knew and loved him, Jake’s gift will always be celebrated here, at the intersection of grief and gratitude.