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A unique connection between 2 St. Louis power players made possible by organ donation

Vanessa Hughes, right, releases purple balloons in honor of her son Justin, who received a heart transplant in 1997.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Raido
Vanessa Hughes, right, releases purple balloons in honor of her son Justin at the start of J-Walk'N. Justin received a heart transplant in 1997.

In their own ways, Larry Hughes and Cara Spencer are St. Louis celebrities.

Spencer just finished her first term on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, representing the 20th ward in south St. Louis. Hughes was a basketball standout at Christian Brothers College High School and then for a year at Saint Louis University before embarking on a 14-year professional career.

But something even more important than celebrity status connects the two families.

Justin and Dana 

Picture-perfect weather greeted a crowd of about 60 people who gathered at Parkway North High School on April 16, ready to take four laps around the track.

"See how God works? It's a beautiful day," Vanessa Hughes said as she welcomed the walkers, clad in identical yellow T-shirts, to the 7th annual J-Walk'N, named for her son Justin.

Justin was a 2004 graduate of Parkway North. He was also born with serious heart defects. A transplant in 1997 was a life-saver."

"He received his heart from Dana Spencer," Vanessa Hughes said. "We have a heart family that is our forever family."

Dana Spencer, Cara Spencer's younger sister, was 16 when she was killed in a car crash in late December 1996.

"That's the classic way  somebody can donate organs," said her father, Bob. "We talked as a family, and it was decided after much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth that we would donate her organs."

The news that Dana's heart was a match for her son Justin overwhelmed Vanessa Hughes.

"I didn't have a clue what that even meant," she said. "And it didn't sound right for another person's heart to be put into my son's chest, but at the same time, it was the only thing that would save his life."

Justin Hughes is Larry Hughes' little brother, so the surgery, on Jan. 2, 1997, generated a lot of media attention. But the Spencer family was only vaguely aware of who the Hughes family was.

"We didn't know them from Adam," Bob said.

"I had just started at Truman State University," said Cara. "A lot of my friends knew Larry from high school. I didn't know him personally, but I got to hear a lot of stories about his tremendous character from friends of his."

'Made-for-television movie kind of story'

Bob Spencer put two and two together one night at a CBC basketball game. It was Larry Hughes' senior season, and a friend told Bob he needed to come see this kid play ball.

As Bob sat down, he saw Vanessa, who he recognized from the media coverage, a few rows ahead. He wasn't sure what to do.

"We were just kind of, should we stay, should we leave? We ended up staying, but it was kind of ironic and uncomfortable, but thrilling at the same time," he said.  He did not approach her. "That's something of the made-for-television movie kind of story that this revolves around."

The first meeting between Bob and Vanessa happened in a similarly made-for-TV movie fashion.

Given the buzz about Larry's basketball skill, Vanessa was used to people stopping her on the street, asking where he was going to play his college ball.

"[Bob] stopped in front of me one day," she said. "He's this short little guy, so I'm thinking, 'This guy doesn't look like a basketball player, so it's not that.' And he introduced himself as Bob Spencer."

Vanessa had seen the stories about her son's transplant. The name clicked.

"And he said something, and put out his hand and I said, 'No, no handshake. I need to hug you. You have given my child life,'" she said.

(from left) Bob, Cara and Pattie Spencer, with Larry Hughes (center rear), his mom Vanessa (front) and the family of liver transplant recipient Spencer Vincent (right) at J-Walk'N, an event promoting organ donation on April 16, 2016.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

The families would grow close. Vanessa eventually met Dana's mother, Pattie Spencer, at an event sponsored by Mid-America Transplant, which coordinates organ donations in the St. Louis area. Justin called Pattie his heart mother.

"That was a very big honor," Pattie said softly, when prompted by Cara.

Vanessa called it a match made in heaven.

"I felt like it was both of them being angels, and it was a match for the life that they had with Dana, and the life that we had with Justin, and it’s a bond that will never ever be severed," she said.

Justin Hughes died from complications of the transplant in May 2006. Vanessa said she had a hard time passing the news onto the Spencers.

"I didn't want Pattie to feel like Dana had died again," she said through tears.

Bob Spencer said both he and his wife grieved Justin's death. But it didn't deter them from working to boost organ donation through volunteer work with Mid-America Transplant. Bob has also helped with the Larry Hughes Foundation, which promotes organ donation and provides financial support to families pre and post-transplant. A lot of events take place in April, which is National Donate Life Month.

Vanessa Hughes is glad to have her famous son's help in championing the cause of organ donation.

"People always want a celebrity," she said. "But it shouldn't be about a celebrity. It should be about educating, it should be about promoting, it should be about learning to give without a celebrity."

Though she doesn't know how many people who come to J-Walk'N sign up to be organ donors, Hughes will keep creating any chance to get the information into their hands.

By the Numbers — Organ Donation in Missouri

All data from the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network

As of April 15, 2016:

  • 1,845 people were waiting for an organ in the state of Missouri. 
  • The vast majority (1,453 patients) are waiting for a kidney.
  • Hospitals in Missouri performed 53 transplants. Most of those (48) took place at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
  • In 2015, 257 people donated their organs in Missouri. So far, in 2016, that number is 12.

LISTEN: St. Louis on the Air's Don Marsh talks to doctors Bruce Bacon and Krista Lentine about breakthroughs in organ donation.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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