James O'Hea's heart was failing to the point that doctors privately gave him little more than a month to live. Terence Begley was staring at more years of dialysis and gradually deteriorating kidney function due to complications from diabetes.
That was before a gunman burst into a church on the Sunday before Thanksgiving and shot three people, two fatally, in a tragedy that has become a life-affirming event through the quick response of one of the victim's families.
Within 24 hours of the shootings, O'Hea, Begley and three other people received organs from 25-year-old Dennis John Mallosseril, who was shot and killed as he tried to break up an argument between a fellow church member and her estranged husband, according to police and witnesses.
O'Hea, Begley and the other recipients _ Malta Hameed, 40, of Clifton; Migdalia Torres, 52, of Cleveland, Ohio, and John Muscarella, 22, of East Newark _ attended a memorial service for Mallosseril on Sunday at the St. Thomas Syrian Orthodox Knanaya Church, the site of the Nov. 23 shootings.
Before the service, the recipients had an emotional meeting with Mallossseril's mother and father during a reception in the church's basement.
“They bent down and listened to my heart,'' O'Hea said. “I had tears rolling down my cheeks.''
Torres, who has suffered from Lupus for 25 years that has affected her kidneys, recalled jumping out of bed at 6 a.m. on the morning after the shooting when she received a call that an organ match had been found. Like the others, she admitted having mixed feelings about the events that led to her transplant.
“I knew someone would have to die for me to get a kidney, but I didn't expect it to be the way he died,'' she said Sunday.
For the 57-year-old O'Hea, who was suffering from congestive heart failure, the donation and transplant literally meant a new lease on life.
“I was weak and basically bedridden,'' O'Hea said last week. “My cardiologist agreed that if I hadn't gotten a heart, I would not have made it through December.''
Begley, who said he now doesn't require the thrice-weekly dialysis treatments he has endured for the last four years, received Mallosseril's kidney and pancreas. Hameed received a liver and Torres received a kidney.
Muscarella suffers from cystic fibrosis and had been given a less than 50 percent chance of surviving past two years had he not received both of Mallosseril's lungs.
Mallosseril died of his wounds on the night of the shooting, two days before he would have turned 26. His family made the decision, just hours after the shooting, to donate his organs.
“It's so totally altruistic,'' said William Reitsma, director of clinical services for NJ Sharing Network, the nonprofit organization that coordinated the recovery of Mallosseril's organs.
“It's not like this family knew these people, these are people they've never met. It's not like you're doing this for a friend or a cousin, it's something totally altruistic, and our community isn't too given to doing this anymore.''
According to Donate Life New Jersey, more than 100,000 people nationwide are waiting for transplants, 4,200 of them in New Jersey. The group says an average of 18 people each day die waiting for transplants across the nation.
“We are so happy we did it,'' Mallosseril's mother, Aley John Mallosseril, said Sunday. “We saw how we could help other people to live, and there is no way to describe how happy we are to see them all, their spirit. I want people to learn something from this; Dennis' life was lost but I want some good to come of it.''
Witnesses said Mallosseril was shot in the head while interceding in a dispute between 24-year-old Reshma James and her estranged husband, Joseph Pallipurath, who police say drove from California to confront her.
James was killed and her cousin, 48-year-old Silvy Perincheril, was seriously injured with a gunshot wound to the head. Perincheril has emerged from a coma and was moved to a rehab center, where her family says she continues her slow recovery.
Pallipurath was captured 36 hours after the shooting in a motel in Georgia. He was extradited to New Jersey and has pleaded not guilty. He remains in jail, and tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide in mid-January while incarcerated.