Advance with MUSC Health

Grace's Transplant Story: A mother’s determination to make sure her child’s life had meaning

Advance With MUSC Health
December 01, 2022
Print of a painting depicting two boys with sand pails on the beach.
"Summer of 84" print by Virginia Ryan Lauzon.

The 2’x3’ print is prominent above Dr. Tracy Rice’s desk. It is a poignant reminder that every transplant is the result of selfless generosity and — in many cases — tragedy.

The image is of two little boys holding sand buckets and gazing out to sea. The year: 1984. The place: Pawleys Island. The scene summons up happy memories of days spent on one of South Carolina’s most beloved beaches.

Like a frame in an unspooled roll of film, it’s part of a story with multiple faces, connected by unimaginable loss and grief, generosity and the gift of life.
For Grace Dibble Boyle of Sumter, the picture is one of several taken that day and the last photo she would ever have of her three-year-old twins, Wortham and Charles, together. 

Within a month, Charles would slip into the waters of Lake Marion while leaning over to retrieve his toy police car. 

Nearly 40 years later, Boyle describes what happened in vivid detail. 

“Charles’ older brother, William, was fishing on the dock, and Charles and Wortham had just come down to the water after their nap,” she said. “A neighbor came over to introduce herself, and we began talking. About that time, William got his line tangled and came to us to help him untangle it.” 

That’s when she noticed Charles wasn’t on the bank. The other children had not seen him. She ran up to the house calling Charles’ name but got no answer and started back down the hill to the water. 

“I saw what looked like a potato chip bag floating in the water, but in an instant, I realized it was the bottom of Charles’ diaper. Then I saw his motionless body.” 

Boyle scooped him up and, with her neighbor’s husband driving, performed CPR on the 10-minute ride to Clarendon County Hospital. Within minutes after arriving at the ER, Charles was flown to a hospital in Columbia and put on life support. 

Boyle, her husband, Gus, and family members were hopeful. As the days wore on, her spirits rose and fell with each breath he took. Doctors were candid about his slim chances for survival but promised they would not give up. Meanwhile, she sang, read and talked to her son. 

Six days later, Charles’ heart began to fail. When an EEG showed that he was brain dead, Boyle, with the backing of Gus, made the decision to donate Charles’ organs. 

“I had recently read the story of Jamie Fiske, the little girl who in 1982 was able to get a life-saving liver transplant after her father pleaded for a donor. It saved her life and the story helped shape organ donor policy,” Boyle says. “As I sat beside his bed, I put myself on the receiving end of an organ and asked myself, ‘What if my child needed an organ transplant to survive?’ I would hope that someone would do the same for my child.” 

Tests showed that Charles’ liver and kidneys were healthy enough to be donated. A young girl in Montana was to receive Charles’ liver, and a man in New Orleans was to receive his kidney. 

In a heart-to-heart talk, the attending pediatrician, Dr. Ron Porter, told Boyle and Gus that they could walk out the front door of the hospital that day and he would call the transplant team, or they could stay and hold Charles’ hand for however long it took for him to die. They stayed with Charles until the end. 

On Aug. 14, Charles became South Carolina’s third liver donor. 

His mother became a national advocate for the life-saving gift of organ donation. “I knew I wanted Charles’ life to have meaning and to help someone else live,” Boyle says. “To me, donating his organ meant that he would go on living.” 

Dr. Rice, an abdominal transplant surgeon at MUSC Health, says the impact of organ donation on a recipient’s life is profound. 

“For patients and their families awaiting a transplant, organ donation can mean the difference between life and death,” she says. 

Receiving an organ is a second chance, a completely new lease on life, says Dr. Rice, who is the surgical director for MUSC Health’s Living Donor Program. She also is part of a multidisciplinary team that oversees donations and transplantations of abdominal organs, livers, kidneys, and pancreases. 

“The impact that a donor can have on people’s lives is remarkable. Patients with end-stage liver disease are some of the sickest we care for, but a new organ can save their life. It is remarkable to see kidney recipients who come off dialysis and can resume normal activities. Organ donors are able to save another person’s life and truly improve the quality of their life with this precious gift.” 

The need for organ donation in the United States is tremendous. 

Dr. Rice dispels some perceptions about how organ donors are treated at the time of transplantation, saying donors are treated with respect and dignity.

“In the OR, before we start the surgery, we often have letters or stories or videos and photos that donor families share with the team,” she says. “We try to keep that personal aspect to remind us of who these organs are coming from and how precious these gifts are. Doing so connects us to the whole person.” 

She also reassures the public that organ donors nearing the end of life are cared for by a separate medical team. The transplant surgeon participates in organ recovery but only after the patient has met the criteria for death. 

For Dr. Rice, the print of Charles and Wortham that was sent to her by Boyle is a reminder of how one person’s determination to turn tragedy into something good and meaningful can be lifesaving for others. 

“It’s a story of where this [transplantation] process starts and reminds us of how tragedy was turned into a gift, one that is life-changing for recipients and their families. We’re so thankful for people who step forward and turn tragic circumstances into a lifesaving chance for others.” 

For Boyle, donating Charles’ organs was proof that her son had not died in vain. “Each person must feel comfortable with their decision, and it requires soul searching,” she says. “All I knew was that this way Charles would give life to someone else. On what would have been Charles’ fourth birthday, Dr. Porter sent me a note that said, ‘All endings offer new beginnings.’ I believe Charles left his footprints on the sands of time.”