Full circle: A humanitarian who dedicated her life to giving back helps other in death

Family Joy

When her daughter Meredith was born her mother Myrt Westphal couldn’t think of a more appropriate middle name than the feeling her child brought her, Joy.  

“She was truly our family joy growing up,” says Myrt.

Meredith Alexander grew up primarily in Virginia and Pennsylvania. She was an avid reader, loved scuba diving, and developed a penchant for travel at a young age. As a teenager, Meredith lived in Thailand and the Netherlands during her father’s overseas assignments. These trips established an inquisitive and humanitarian view of the world which would become the cornerstone of her schooling and professional career. She completed her last two years of high school in the Netherlands and went on to earn both an undergraduate and master’s degree at the University of Kent in Canterbury, United Kingdom (UK).  Aside from time spent in Bangladesh with the British Peace Corps, Meredith resided in England for the remainder of her life.

Meredith Alexander

 “Meredith was an indefatigable warrior for social justice attacking human rights injustices,” says her aunt, Vicky Clark. “[She was] dedicated, passionate, hardworking, and an innovative thinker.”

She built her career working for various nonprofit organizations, including People and Planet, Action Aid, and Save the Children. Her last job was as Campaign Director for AVAAZ, an online, global, community-based activist organization.

One last trip

At the age of 42, Meredith was in a place of great happiness. She had a fulfilling job that enabled her to give back to others; was recently married; and was visiting her family in Missoula, Montana for the holidays. It was during this trip that Meredith endured a ruptured brain aneurysm. She was rushed to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, but passed away on January 7, 2018.

A few months prior to her death, Meredith emailed her husband Paul sharing that she had signed up to be an organ donor in the UK. Though she didn’t think this information would be relevant anytime soon, she wanted him to know her wish and asked him to register as well.

 “Having this in writing and hearing her specifics helped Paul at the time of her donation,” said Myrt.

Just as she had done so vigilantly in life, Meredith continued to help others in death. Her gifts went on to save the lives of four people through the donation of both kidneys, her liver, and her lungs.

A breath of fresh air

Leslie Kempthorne was born with Cystic Fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. Though she was on oxygen full time, she tried to keep a positive attitude. Just take it one day at a time. A researcher in traumatic brain injury at the University of Washington, she continued working as her illness progressed, but she was constantly fatigued and began to find that even simple day to day tasks were increasingly more difficult. She was officially listed on the transplant waiting list in March of 2017.

“The thought of transplant was definitely scary,” she remembers. “Honestly, I was terrified. I had a hard time imagining that it was possible.

Leslie at UW Medical Center prior to her double lung transplant

On January 11, 2018, ten months after being placed on the transplant list and with an estimated three months to live, Leslie got the call. They had found a set of lungs for her, and they were perfect. She can still recall the incredible feeling of taking that first breath.

“You can take a breath, but you can just keep going! That was something I had never been able to do, there was always a limit on that,” she says and remembers with a laugh, “I just kept thinking, ‘this is what I’ve been missing out on? This is the energy that people have?’ It’s like being reborn.”

Today, Leslie works to honor her gift by making the most out of every day. She uses her new found energy being able to return to work full time, spending time with her family, attending her children’s various activities, and volunteering in the community.

So many parallels

As thankful as Leslie was for her new lease one life, there was always one aspect that was difficult for her to reconcile; someone had to die in order for her to live. When she received a letter from her donor’s family she felt conflicting emotions of sadness for their loss, and excitement for the opportunity to learn about the person who gave so selflessly.

“She is absolutely perfect. I am beyond grateful to have received this incredible gift from anyone, but it just so happened that Meredith and I had so much in common,” Leslie says. “I think it’s natural to look for parallels, but this was very easy. There were so many parallels.”

Leslie learned of Meredith’s altruism and drive to care for others, especially the vulnerable, a sentiment she shared working in a soup kitchen and volunteering with multiple organization in her community. In fact, Leslie had been part of the AAVAZ (Meredith’s employer) community, from the very beginning often reading about service trips or projects that Meredith had been a part of. The two also shared similar political beliefs and placed importance on human rights. Oddly enough, in 1994 Leslie also experienced a brain aneurysm that was discovered and treated.

Leslie with Meredith’s family. From left to right: Leslie’s husband, Myrt, Ian-nephew, Leslie, Michelle-sister, Elliot-Nephew, Carl-Brother-in-law

After corresponding with Meredith’s family for a while, Leslie traveled to Missoula to meet them. The journey was emotional, and Leslie remembers trembling with anticipation and fear.  

“You don’t fully know what to expect,” says Leslie, “Realizing what they have gone through and even trying to comprehend it. I just knew every step of the journey was difficult on all sides.”

The meeting couldn’t have been more successful. A gathering for a short lunch turned into a six hour conversation, and an additional visit the following day. This spring, Myrt has planned a trip to Seattle to visit Leslie and her family. In reflecting on their bond Leslie states that “Myrt came out with open arms and that’s how she stayed”. Both sides consider each other family.

“Every breath I take, I don’t do it alone, I do it with Meredith and her lungs. I do it with Myrt and her family. I do it with my family. With the surgeon and all of the medical staff that helped me,” Leslie says. “So much love and melancholy went into this. I carry her with me everywhere, and it inspires me to be a better person.”