Curtis Kingfisher will always carry a piece of Mariee Mena with him.
At 12 years old, Curtis received a kidney donation from Mariee, a former Oklahoma softball player, which gave him a second chance at life. Since then, he and his family have been deeply connected with both the Menas and the OU family.
When Curtis was born, he was not breathing. He was in a coma for a couple of weeks, and Floyd and Rhonda Kingfisher, who live in Salina, Okla., were told their son may only have a short time to live.
“At one point, the doctors told us, ‘You might want to make funeral arrangements,’” Floyd recalls. “They didn’t have any hope, but praise the Lord, through prayer he started to wake up.”
Doctors then told the Kingfishers that Curtis would probably be in the hospital for about six months, but a month later, he was already headed home. The Kingfishers were also informed that Curtis would likely need a kidney transplant at some point in his life. When he was 12 years old, Curtis was on dialysis for 10 hours a day and in need of a new organ.
“We were doing home dialysis and he was on the machine 10 hours a day,” Floyd shares. “He would go to sleep, we’d wake him up, he’d unhook himself and take a shower, go to school. That’s what he did but he kept getting worse. (We were) praying for a miracle and we got a call, and the rest is history, like they say.”
The call was that there was a kidney for Curtis. The life-saving transplant came from Mariee, who died on Oct. 6, 2009, from brain injuries caused in a motorcycle accident. Mena, a native of Escondido, Calif., was part of two Women’s College World Series teams and a 2004 Second-Team All-Big 12 outfielder as a Sooner.
Mariee’s mother, Isela, describes her daughter as someone who “had a radiant smile and a laugh that was very contagious.” Mariee was a teacher’s aide at Windsor Hills Elementary in Oklahoma City, and following her accident, many letters were sent to the Menas. One that stands out to Isela was from parents whose daughter started to love math again after having a math lab with Mariee, just one of the many ways Mariee impacted those around her.
“Mariee was full of energy and loved life,” Isela says. “There was nothing she couldn’t do and wouldn’t do. But mostly she had a nurturing heart. Her heart would shine in the way that she talked about her family and friends, teammates and her students.”
The Kingfishers were just told general details about Curtis’ donor – that she was a 26-year-old female who was a former athlete. The next day when Curtis was in the recovery room, Floyd picked up the local paper and flipped to the sports page, a ritual he and Curtis shared. There, he saw an article about Mariee passing away, and he then realized that she must be Curtis’ donor.
“I always said God wanted me to know who the donor was, and I believe God wanted the families to get together, so we have,” Floyd says. “Over the years we’ve been with the Mena family so much. They’re a blessing and some of the most wonderful people you'd ever want to meet.”
The transplant was coordinated through LifeShare, which is “a nonprofit, federally designated organ procurement organization (OPO) dedicated to the recovery of organs and tissue for transplant services,” according to its website. OU Medical Center, where Curtis received his transplant, is one of five transplant centers in the state of Oklahoma with which LifeShare works closely.
Rhonda says that she and her family are grateful for the fact that Mariee chose to be an organ donor, and she encourages others to do the same.
“I try to encourage everyone to be an organ donor, to get that little red heart on their drivers license because without that, without Mariee putting that little heart on her drivers license, we may not have Curtis here."
Mariee’s generosity gave Curtis and five others a second chance at life, and that has forged a deep bond between the Menas and Kingfishers.
Last year, Curtis graduated from Salina High School, and Mariee’s mom made the trip from California to the small Oklahoma town to watch the milestone. Curtis even wore Mariee’s graduation gown for the ceremony and had her initials and jersey number included on his class ring.
“That was something special, and it always is with the Mena family when you’re around them,” Floyd says. “It’s always special … I don’t know the words to describe it, but they’re a blessing.”
The Kingfishers have been just as much of a blessing to the Mena family. Isela recalls the first time she met Curtis at an OU softball game, saying he captured her heart that day. Curtis hugged her tight and didn’t seem to want to let go.
“I cherish that day and every day we are able to spend together,” Isela says. “He’s just an amazing young man. Our daughter lives on in our hearts. We carry her with us all the time in our thoughts and in our dreams. A love for a child never ends. But as for my sweet Curtis, he lives because of Mariee’s selfless act of love.”
The Kingfishers honor Mariee as often as they can, whether it be by joining in the Mariee Mena Memorial Walk each October or wearing hats adorned with her initials, the Kingfishers show their gratitude to Mariee for the gift she gave their family. At the end of the walk, Curtis stands with another beneficiary of Mariee's donation, Krissy Burchell, who received Mariee’s heart.
“When we leave Mariee’s Playground, which is the OU softball field, and we walk to the point of impact, it’s not about sadness, it’s about hope,” shares Isela, who is also close to the Burchell family and attended Krissy's wedding. “Krissy and Curtis, their lives are hope.”
To Isela and her family, this compassion for Mariee and shared love for her means the world.
“They are a truly amazing family,” Isela says. “They’ve blessed us. We are blessed that Curtis and his family continue to honor our daughter. They show so much love for her. It’s just amazing to me. They love her just as much as we do.”
The Kingfishers are grateful for each and every moment they have with Curtis.
“Over the years we’ve told people that we’re grateful for everything that he does,” Floyd says. “He wakes up in the morning, praise the Lord. Because there was a time when I wasn’t going to have three boys, but I do. And I praise the Lord for that every day that I have three sons.
“That’s the biggest gift that Curtis could have because the doctor said that he would need a transplant soon or he wouldn’t be able to survive much longer and we always say that Mariee with the organ donation, Mariee gave him a second chance,” Floyd continues. “So anything we get now is a blessing compared to what it could have been. I always tell people I could have been wondering about how old my boy would have been now, instead I get to go to a ballgame with him.”
The Kingfishers now feel a lifelong connection to the OU family because of Mariee. OU head coach Patty Gasso is always so welcoming anytime the family visits Norman, Floyd says.
Whenever Gasso sees Curtis, she feels Mariee as well, she says.
“It’s just pretty amazing to know that a beautiful life in Mariee Mena continues to live on,” Gasso shares. “It was a tragic accident with Mariee, but anytime I see Curtis, immediately I feel Mariee.
“He loves her so much and he never knew her,” Gasso continues. “Not just because she gave him life through her organ donation but he just embraced and really studied who she was. He knows a lot about her and to see him, I just think of her … It’s really enjoyable and just heartwarming to see that family in love with this program but more in love with Mariee Mena.”
Curtis was granted a “Make-A-Wish” to be a Sooner for a Day. The experience came on Oct. 31, 2009, not long after his transplant, during an OU football game against Kansas State. Curtis had the opportunity to do the coin toss and meet members of the OU football family. During the trip, he also met Gasso for the first time.
“All she did was hold Curtis’ hand and cry,” Floyd recalls. “Ever since then, we’ve been connected to the OU family. He wanted to be a Sooner for a Day, but like Isela always says, he’s a Sooner for Life. And we believe that, too.”
Today, Curtis’ “Make-A-Wish” continues. People often ask Curtis why he didn’t choose a trip to Disneyland, but Floyd says being a Sooner for a Day was all he wanted.
“His wish is still going because we are still connected to the Mena family, are still connected to the softball team,” Floyd explains. “We still get all the benefits of being a part of the OU family.”
When asked how long he will be a Sooner fan, Curtis smiles and says, “for life.”
A life that was given a second chance thanks to the life-saving donation from Mariee to a young man and his family who will be forever grateful.