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Two Lexington women share stories of loss and the gift of life

Ashley Holt (left) and Denisha Henry became friends through their work for Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates. Henry says, "She's like family." They're shown here at a recent showing of "Ordinary Angels," a movie about organ donation.
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Ashley Holt and Denisha Henry became friends through their work for Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates. Henry says, "She's like family." They're shown here at a recent showing of "Ordinary Angels," a movie about organ donation.

On July 13th, 2010, Denisha Henry’s 17-year-old daughter, T’Neil, complained of a bad headache. It worsened, and she had a seizure, and an ambulance was called. At the hospital, T’ Neil’s loved ones were told she had a brain bleed caused by blood vessels that didn’t form properly at birth.

“We met with her neurosurgeons and neurologists on a Sunday, that following Sunday. And they told us that more than more than likely, her condition was going to take her life. And then just in that instant, I just blurted out, ‘Well, if she doesn't survive, then I want her to be an organ donor.’”

Denisha says T’Neil’s father was reluctant to agree. He didn’t want to let go. Two days later, T’Neil received a second brain death declaration, and her father agreed to let go. The next day, T’Neil’s organs were taken.

Two months later, Denisha, who is Black, joined Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates’ multicultural committee and KODA’s donor family council. She was a clinical research coordinator with a Lexington drug company and had found it hard to recruit African Americans for drug trials. She says she soon learned the same problem existed with organ donor registries – many Black folks simply didn’t trust the system. Some recalled the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which African Americans were told they were being given medicine, but weren’t. Others were simply accustomed to a lack of access to quality health care. Denisha became a KODA family liaison.

“There is a great need. How many people do we know in our, you know, neighbors, our church members, our family members, that are on dialysis that have high blood pressure, that have diabetes, that have all these conditions that might possibly land you on the wait list for an organ?”

Black people stand to benefit from increased participation in organ donor programs. According to the Mayo Clinic, “People from various ethnic groups will have a better outcome with a donor organ from someone of a similar background.”

Over the years, Denisha learned of the people whose lives were saved by T’Neil’s organs. Among them is a young woman with cystic fibrosis who was proposed to on Valentines Day.

In 2018, while Denisha was spreading the message, another Black woman in Lexington learned she had chronic kidney disease. Ashley Holt says it was a punch in the gut. By last summer, she was on six different organ registries within a six-hour radius and undergoing home dialysis. Her daughter Niyah wanted to help.

“My daughter was like, ‘Ma, please wait until I'm 18. Because I'm gonna give you my kidney. I know I'm a match, just wait, hold off until I'm 18.’ She was 14 years old.”

“Dr. Desai, my surgeon, he came to me in the room while I was in pre-op, getting ready to go to go into the transplant surgery. And he said, ‘I don't know anything about this donor, other than this donor is a 96% match to you.’”

By then, Ashley was a KODA ambassador – joining others who’ve’ received an organ, or given one, or been touched in some way by death and the gift of life.

“What I share with people is number one, that this if you if you love, and you love abundantly, this is one of the greatest gifts of love that you can give.”

Six months after her transplant, Ashley says she feels great – and grateful. She says she’s still tweaking a letter to the family of the person who gave her a kidney. And she has a new friend, Denisha, whose birthday is the same day Ashley saw the KODA truck.

Denisha says she and Ashley hit it off quickly. They’ve shared meals and church and stories. Stories about T’Neil, and her surviving twin sister, D’Neil, and Ashey’s Niyah. Stories about how tragedy can be turned about. Stories they tell other people. Denisha puts it this way:

“If what we're doing can help somebody else, help save another life, or help somebody make a decision that may in turn, turn into saving another life, then then it's well worth it. I'm very proud of what my daughter was able to do. And to be able to carry that work on in her name.”

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John McGary is a Lexington native and Navy veteran with three decades of radio, television and newspaper experience.
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