WALL, N.J. — Andre Thomas was just 30 years old and suffering through kidney failure when the phone call came.

“We’ve got a kidney for you,” the caller said.

“I dropped down to my knees and started crying,” Thomas said.

The kidney belonged to Luke Bautista, a 15-year-old from Wall who died in a household accident in May 2016. His parents decided to donate his organs, saving the lives of five strangers.

Two of them are strangers no more. On Wednesday, Thomas and Pennsylvania mom Missy Masse, who received Luke’s pancreas, took part in an emotional ceremony at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune. They unveiled the image of Luke — a floragraph, which is a large portrait created with floral materials — that will appear on a float in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, on Jan. 1.

“To be surrounded by so many family and friends was amazing, but what made the night extra special was watching two of Luke’s organ recipients unveil the floragraph,” said Chris Bautista, Luke’s dad. “We were emotionally drained, but also lifted up by seeing how grateful and full of life these two people are.”

Since 2004, the Donate Life float has been part of the Rose Parade. It features the floragraphs of several dozen deceased organ donors from around the country. Luke was chosen because of his family’s deep devotion to the cause. They have raised more than $160,000 for N.J. Sharing Network, a nonprofit organ procurement organization.

“Luke has been an inspiration for so many people,” Chris Bautista said.

It’s rare for families of deceased organ donors to meet the recipients of their organs, but Luke’s parents and his older brother C.J. Bautista have developed relationships with two of them.

“They are the most amazing family I have ever met,” Masse, who was cured of a severe case of diabetes, told the Asbury Park Press in March. “I just don’t have the words to describe how blessed I feel to have them in my life and have their friendship.”

Thomas, a business manager and married father of three who lives in Mount Laurel, met them last month.

“Seeing them was just overwhelming,” Thomas said. “I just want them to see me in a good light, let them know the organ could have gone to anybody, but this young man who received the organ is going to put it to great use.”

Chris Bautista was particularly moved to learn that Thomas and his wife decided to go ahead and have their third child after he recovered from transplant surgery.

“I said to him, ‘You decided to celebrate and have a baby?'” Chris said. “Everybody laughed. It’s funny but it’s real. So this baby is here today because of Luke. That was the most emotional part for me.”

According to N.J. Sharing Network, there are 5,000 New Jerseyans awaiting organ transplants, one of whom dies every three days.

“I let them know, I’m sorry I can’t replace Luke, but I’m going to live right and treat this kidney like it’s a newborn child,” Thomas said. “I’m thankful for this opportunity.”

In late December the Bautistas will head to Pasadena for the Rose Parade, which could be seen by as many as 50 million people around the world, and then attend the Rose Bowl. Thomas can appreciate that. He’s a football guy, having played the sport at Burlington City High School. He’s cousins with Ron Dayne, a New Jersey native who scored four touchdowns for Wisconsin in the 1999 Rose Bowl and was named Player of the Game.

Thomas usually watches the game. Now he’ll check out the parade, too, looking for Luke’s float.

“It feels like we’re bonded forever,” he said.


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JERRY CARINO
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