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Mother turns heartache into therapy

April 01, 2006|By KAREN HANNA

HAGERSTOWN

In the Florida hospital where her daughter was flown to await a new heart, Jeri Lynch made a decision she never before had supported.

With the news that her daughter, Christina Marie DellaValle, had suffered irreversible brain swelling, Lynch asked that the young woman's organs be donated.

"Instead of Christina being the organ donor that we thought she was going to be, she saved five people's lives and gave sight to four others," Lynch said.

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Christina's pictures adorn the walls of the home Lynch shares with her husband, Kevin, south of Hagerstown. On one poster, Lynch has created a montage honoring her daughter and advocating organ donation, her platform in today's Mrs. Maryland International pageant.

Lynch, 54, said pageant officials have told her she is the oldest woman ever to compete in the contest for married women.

"I have found my purpose in life," Lynch said Thursday as she talked about her decision to donate DellaValle's organs after her first-born daughter died Dec. 29.

At 29, DellaValle was living with her fianc and their son, Aidan, now 1, in Deltona, Fla., when, on Dec. 22, she suffered what her family later would learn was the first of two heart attacks. She had struggled with anorexia nervosa, a dangerous eating disorder, since her teens, her mother said.

DellaValle stayed in a coma from the time her mother got to Florida until the day she died, Lynch said.

She had two other sons, Anthony, who now is 9, and Austin, now 5.

According to Lynch and DellaValle's fiance, John Gems, 31, of Florida, DellaValle had shown progress in her battle with her eating disorder in the months before her death. Gems had dated DellaValle when she was a teenager. He agreed to get back together with his high school sweetheart on the condition she seek help.

"She was, three months before she passed, she was 92 pounds, and on the day of her passing, she was 127," said Gems, who traveled with Aidan to Hagerstown to support Lynch's bid to become Mrs. Maryland International today.

In pictures, DellaValle is gaunt with striking, long hair, like her mother's. She stood 5 feet 7 inches, said Lynch, who has made several public presentations touting organ donation.

"Her heart was only operating at 10 percent after her first heart attack, and this is what scares me with the young kids in high school that have all the eating disorders," she said. "They think it's not life-threatening. It is. It's scarier than they could ever think."

In a photo of DellaValle when she was 2 1/2 years old, she wears pigtails and hugs a black poodle. She won first place in a look-alike pet contest, her mother said.

She leaves behind a 13-year-old brother, Patrick, and a 19-year-old sister, Katie, who has moved to Florida to help Gems take care of Aidan, Lynch said.

Aidan toddled around Lynch's living room, clutching a stuffed monkey, as his father and grandmother talked.

DellaValle, who was meticulous about her appearance and obsessive about cleaning, loved monkeys, Lynch said.

"She just liked cleaning her house and being a mom and taking care of people," Lynch said.

For Lynch, who once feared being "cut up," donating DellaValle's organs has been therapeutic. Lynch said the people DellaValle helped in death include a mother of five and a 55-year-old farmer.

In one letter, a woman thanked Lynch for the pancreas and kidney her father received, Lynch said. The writer was 28 years old, going on 29, nearly the same age as DellaValle, Lynch said.

"Christina being O-positive (blood type), she was a universal donor, and she literally saved his life," Lynch said.

Lynch said organ donor advocacy is her mission, no matter how she does in today's competition. If everyone were a donor, Lynch said, patients wouldn't need to wait for organs that could save their lives.

Though DellaValle was not an organ donor - her mother made the decision - Lynch said her daughter always was a giving person who would have wanted to do something special for others.

"When I go out on that stage, I know she's going to be with me," she said.

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