GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The heavy rain didn’t keep some families from gathering at John Ball Zoo on Saturday to share their stories of organ and tissue donation.

Among the crowd of people who attended were Nicole and her husband Aaron, who asked to be identified only by their first names. Nicole’s father, Arthur Bacce, died in 2019 from a car accident. He had made the decision long before the accident to become an organ and tissue donor.

“A gift of life has always been an option at our house,” she said.

Nicole described her father as a hard working and loving person.

His decision to donate his organs and tissues upon death was always a “natural choice,” though his family never fully realized the impact that would have on someone else’s life.

It wasn’t until six months after Nicole’s father passed away that she and her sister began questioning what life was like for the recipients.

They contacted Gift of Life, the state’s federally-designated organ and tissue recovery program, which provides all services necessary for organ donation to occur in Michigan, according to its website.

Nicole and her sister sent a letter to the organization, including a message for the recipients, wishing them well.

The sisters were soon contacted by a representative and were allowed to have contact with the recipient families.

They received details of the matches and were eventually introduced to Brett Bowman, a young man who had been living with cystic fibrosis since birth.

Around the time of Nicole’s father’s passing, Bowman was in the hospital for end-stage lung disease.

His mother, Kim Bowman, remembers the day she got the call that her son would have another chance of life through Nicole’s father.

Brett Bowman pictured with a recreated image of Arthur Bacce.

“A month to the date of listing for lungs, we got the call that not only had they found lungs but the doctors gave the thumbs up that were good to go,” she said. “August 9th was the day he received lungs. My brother and I were out near the flight deck, waiting and saw the helicopter out of the clouds. It was just so profound because I knew it was delivering those life-saving organs.”

Brett Bowman was able to receive both of Nicole’s father’s lungs. He went into double lunge transplant surgery and the very next day Brett Bowman’s family began to see an immediate change.

“Within 24 hours he was off the ventilator and breathing on his own,” Kim Bowman said.

Unfortunately, Brett Bowman lost all of his sight as part of the transplant, becoming the first care in the U.S. where that had happened, according to his mother.

But Brett Bowman was just so thankful at a second chance of life that losing eyesight wasn’t even a problem.

“He said, ‘mom, if I wouldn’t have gotten lungs we wouldn’t even be talking about my eyes. I don’t know what God’s plan is but I’m here and I’m breathing,'” Kim Bowman said as she recounted that 2019 conversation with her son following the transplant.

Both families were able to meet during the pandemic via Zoom. Eventually, they all met in person at a park in Grand Haven and have been connected ever since.

“I’m incredibly grateful for them forever,” Kim Bowman said.

They met up again at the Donate Life Event that took place at John Ball Zoo Saturday afternoon. The event was held in person for the first time since 2019. There was a Celebration of Life Trail that honored donors and recipients, community resource booths, children’s activities, face painting, food and more.

“This is always such an inspiring event,” said Alison Gillum, Gift of Life’s senior community relations coordinator in Grand Rapids. “It’s a great way to celebrate life and life renewed and to honor all those who have provided the gift of life.” 

Brett’s Bowman and his family pictured with the donor family of Art Bacce

Nicole’s and her husband Aaron were just as grateful as the Bowmans because it helped them heal. They were able to find purpose in what was a difficult loss.

“It allowed us to see that there was something past all of the horrendous things that occurred to our family,” Aaron said.

Brett Bowman, who is now 26, is thriving and living a healthy life since his surgery three years ago.

He’s attending college and majoring in massage therapy. He has participated in long distance and most of all, he gets to continue spending time with his family — something he thinks wouldn’t be possible had he not received two new lungs.

“It’s a blessing. Getting lungs changed my life,” Brett Bowman said.

Both families are now encouraging people to become donors themselves.

“It’s a personal decision to become a donor but at the same time you’re allowing somebody to pursue their ambitions, their goals in life,” Aaron said. “Through a traumatic and very challenging experience, there’s good things that can still happen.”

According to the Gift of Life, there are 2,400 people in the state who are waiting for an organ transplant.

To learn more about becoming a donor, click here.