In 1996, when Jennifer Lentini was only 13, she was suffering from a heart muscle disease and in desperate need of a transplant. For months,she waited for one in a hospital, as her heart got progressively worse. “The doctors told my parents to say goodbye to me on July Fourth,” Lentini recalled. “Then on July 5, the organ came in.”
Lentini’s last minute gift of life was from a 14-year-old boy who was shot accidentally by a friend with a .380-caliber handgun. The boy’s mother, Vicki Brannon, felt strongly that his heart should be donated.
The experience led Lentini, who is now 33, to where she was last Friday — in the packed auditorium of St. Thomas the Apostle School in West Hempstead, speaking to hundreds of students about her experience and the importance of becoming an organ donor. “I always ask people, would you accept a transplant if you really needed one? And most of the time, they say yes,” Lentini told the audience. “Then, in turn, I say to them, ‘You must think about becoming a donor, too.’”
The lecture was part of the school’s official kickoff of a yearlong, pay-it-forward program called the Kindness Revolution that focuses on student participation in a good-deed-themed project. She has spoken to every high school in Nassau County and some in Suffolk, she told students.
Lentini, a bar manager at the Coasters Tavern in East Meadow, said she wants to spread the message of paying it forward to others. Although she isn’t paid for her speeches about the importance of organ donations, she has done them on behalf of numerous nonprofits since she was 18, including Long Island TRIO, a nonprofit that helps improve the quality of life for organ transplant recipients; LiveOnNY, which helps raise awareness and facilitates organ donations; and the New York Blood Center.Audiences range from a dozen people to groups of 2,000. She also arranges speaking engagements on her own, she added.
On Feb. 14, 2015, she finally met her organ donor’s mother, Vicki Brannon — a highly emotional experience for both women, according to Lentini. “The first thing she did was put her head on my chest and listen to her son’s heartbeat after 18 years,” Lentini recounted. “For me, meeting my donor mom was the best gift.” The two chose to meet on Valentine’s Day because of its ties with love and because it is National Donor Day. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designated it as an observance to raise awareness of the need for organ, eye, tissue, marrow, platelet and blood donations. According to statistics shared from the United Network for Organ Sharing, 22 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant.
Speaking to the captivated audience at St. Thomas, Lentini answered students’ questions, from how many medications she has to take each day for her transplant (30 pills daily) to whether she can donate her donated heart when she dies (she can’t).
“Sometimes the little kids are more insightful than the older kids and the adults,” Lentini said. “Their questions were just really great.”
There are numerous ways to become an organ donor (see the federal government’s website, OrganDonor.org). You must be 18 years old in New York state to donate, or have the authorization of a parent or guardian.