As a mother and a friend, Vicki Olds has a storehouse of love that knows no bounds. Her actions are proof of that.
Faced with unimaginable loss at the unexpected death of her daughter, 18-year-old Domonique “Nikki” Smith, in June of this year, Vicki turned tragedy into triumph when she made the decision to donate Nikki’s heart to lifelong friend Tanisha Basham.
And while Nikki’s death would serve as the physical end to her life, it was also the beginning of what would become her lasting legacy because of her decision to become an organ and tissue donor.
“Nikki was always there for anyone, especially when they needed it,” Vicki explains. “She was the absolute best friend anyone could have.”
Nikki gave her mother countless reasons to be proud. She was a straight-A student, an actress, a loving friend and a cherished daughter. As a small child, she enjoyed taking her toys apart just to see how they worked. “Nikki had a passion for learning and a passion for life,” Vicki says. “She was a vibrant force wherever she went.”
A college student with a bright future ahead of her, Nikki was extraordinarily accomplished despite her young age. She was a tutor and mentor to fellow students. She spoke French fluently. She listened to Andrea Bocelli and proudly sang along in Italian at the tender age of three. And when she took to the stage herself, she brought down the house with her enthusiastic performances.
“People naturally gravitated to her wherever she went,” Vicki says. “When Nikki came into a room, people wanted to know who she was.”
More than anything, though, Nikki was a giver who made a lasting impression on everyone she met. They include the 350 friends who crowded the hospital intensive care unit to offer their prayers when Nikki stood at death’s door and the hundreds more who filled her memorial service after she lost her battle for life.
“My daughter was on the right path,” Vicki says. “She made a difference in people’s lives, and, through her gifts, she continues to make a difference today.”
A Lasting Legacy
Nikki’s story and the lives she saved are the centerpiece of Gift of Hope’s new Lasting Legacy campaign, which aims to boost donor authorization rates among African-Americans by showcasing the circle of donation. The campaign features poignant TV, radio, print and social media ads to inspire African-Americans to say “yes” to organ and tissue donation.
“The Lasting Legacy campaign addresses the fears and misconceptions that many African-Americans have about organ and tissue donation,” explains Marion Shuck, Gift of Hope’s Manager of Community Affairs. “The campaign seeks to start the conversation about the lifesaving benefits the selfless act of becoming a donor can offer to people in need.”
Although Nikki is gone, her presence is with her mother every day. It’s in the purple accents on the bracelet found around Vicki’s wrist, the keepsakes in her bedroom and the stories of selflessness that Vicki shares. “The impact of Nikki’s life lives on through her family and friends,” says Gift of Hope President/CEO Kevin Cmunt. “This is profoundly illustrated through Tanisha Basham, Vicki’s close friend, who received Nikki’s heart.”
Tanisha, a 41-year-old mother of three from University Park, Ill., was the picture of good health. Her sunny disposition and radiant smile were a perfect match for her infectious zest for life. A supervisor at a local grocery store, Tanisha juggled her work and family lives with ease.
But in 2013, Tanisha noticed her energy levels weren’t what they used to be. Then she developed breathing problems. Eventually, Tanisha’s health problems affected every aspect of her life and caught the attention of her manager. “I just couldn’t take a deep breath,” she explains.
At her manager’s urging, Tanisha made an appointment to see her doctor. Tests revealed she had congestive heart failure — the same condition that took her mother’s life at age 48. Even worse, her heart was functioning at only 25 percent of its capacity, which put her in the hospital multiple times and caused serious complications such as dangerous blood clots in her lungs and legs.
In December of that year, Tanisha was added to the heart transplant waiting list. During one of her many hospitalizations, her heart stopped beating three times.
With little heart function of her own, Tanisha was given a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, that pumped blood through her ailing body. Although she was still alive, Tanisha felt she wasn’t truly living. She couldn’t work, couldn’t care for herself and couldn’t care for her children. She desperately needed a heart transplant, but her frustration and worries grew as she spent 18 long months on the waiting list without a match.
That all changed with a single phone call in June of this year. Tanisha, who had just visited Vicki at Nikki’s bedside, received word from her sister that Vicki wanted her to have Nikki’s heart. “I was overwhelmed,” Tanisha recalls. “I told Vicki, ‘I can’t accept this.’ But she told me, ‘Tanisha, you’re like my sister. You’ll always have my baby with you.’”
Tanisha was the first person Vicki thought of when trying to make some good come from Nikki’s death. “She has three of her own children who need their mother,” Vicki explains. “She needs to be able to live her life.”
A Perfect Match
Blood tests showed that Nikki’s heart was a perfect match for Tanisha, and she was admitted to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill., to prepare for transplantation surgery. As one mother was saying good-bye to her only child, another was preparing to undergo surgery so she could resume her role as mother to her own children.
When Tanisha awoke after surgery, gone was the ever-present humming sound of the LVAD’s battery pack that she had grown accustomed to for more than a year. In its place was the beating sound of a young, healthy heart inside of her.
“I heard this pounding sound, and I asked what it was,” Tanisha recalls. “The doctor told me it was my new heart. It was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. Right then, I knew that I was going to be okay. It was an amazing feeling.”
Two weeks later, Tanisha was back home with her family. And as she continues to regain her strength today, she looks forward to resuming the many tasks her daughters took care of during her long wait for a heart. She also plans to cherish every moment as a mother, as a friend and as the keeper of Nikki’s lasting legacy.
“Nikki was someone I knew and loved personally,” says Tanisha’s daughter, Ashley. “If she were here today, I would tell her much I love her. I would tell her thank you for saving my mom.”
Tanisha keeps Nikki’s photo as a screensaver on her smartphone as a constant reminder of who gave her a second chance at life. And when she goes to her frequent echocardiogram appointments, Vicki accompanies her so she can see her daughter’s heart beating in the body of her friend. “Tanisha always called my daughter ‘niecy-poo,’” Vicki recalls with a smile on her face. “I was truly grateful knowing she was a 100 percent match for Nikki’s heart.”
In all, Nikki saved the lives of four individuals as a donor, including another family friend who received one of her kidneys in a second directed donation, an extreme rarity in donation cases.
“With Gift of Hope’s help, we made it possible for Tanisha to carry on my daughter’s legacy and be there for her children,” Vicki says. “I carried Nikki for nine months, and Tanisha’s going to carry her for the rest of her life.”
Gift of Hope unveiled the moving tragedy to triumph story of Nikki, Vicki and Tanisha at the launch of its Lasting Legacy campaign in October. The milestone event was attended by both families, Ill. Secretary of State Jesse White and representatives from Gift of Hope.
“Vicki and Nikki’s story was chosen to highlight the tremendous good that can come out of a tragic circumstance,” Shuck explains. “Lasting Legacy gives us the opportunity to share African-American stories of organ and tissue donation with the African-American community.”