As a single mother of three, Kathy Forti had a particularly close relationship with her eldest son, Tommy Burley. She taught him to play baseball at a young age, supported him at one sporting event after another and stood by his side when he was nominated to be in the Little League Baseball Hall of Fame. An "old soul," Tommy would discuss life's greatest mysteries with his mother for hours on end - even at the tender age of six.
When Tommy was only 11, Kathy was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease that can cause progressive muscle weakness, and was later diagnosed with yet another chronic autoimmune disease, lupus. Kathy struggled with these conditions as Tommy became a teenager, and he helped to care for his ailing mother with compassion and maturity well beyond his years.
Tommy was 14 years old when Kathy married her "Prince Charming" in 2007. She then became the stepmother of two more children, which made her a grandmother, as well. As a new family, they all grew together.
"She is the one who I always go to for advice, the one that comforts me when I'm sick or sad," explained a 17-year-old Tommy in a letter he wrote in 2010. "All I could do is what she did for me. I tell her it will all be okay, and she's been taking it like a champ every day."
When it came time to learn to drive, Kathy sat Tommy down to discuss organ and tissue donation. As she initiated the conversation, much to Kathy's surprise, Tommy declared he understood and had already made the decision to register as an organ and tissue donor - conversation over.
An accomplished high school athlete, Tommy dreamed of one day becoming a firefighter and a police officer. He went on to join the U.S. Air Force Reserves as a member of the Air Force Security Forces and become a volunteer firefighter with the Youngstown Volunteer Fire Company, all by the age of 20.
Then on June 18, 2013, Tommy's short, but impactful life came to a sudden end when he was involved in a fatal motorcycle accident on his way home from firefighter training. Grief-stricken, Kathy was unable to face many of the difficult decisions that would follow. But one thing was certain: Tommy would be a donor.
With the love and support of her family, Kathy, 47, continues to heal and honors Tommy's memory through a memorial blood drive that has touched the lives of hundreds.
"This process has affirmed my support of organ, eye and tissue donation," said Kathy. "It has been an important part of my healing journey, and I take some comfort knowing that Tommy's wishes to become a donor were able to be fulfilled. I hope to someday meet those who received Tommy's gift of eyes and tissue."
Kathy will be honoring her son's memory while riding on the Donate Life Rose Parade Float in Pasadena, California. Tune in on New Year's Day to see the float in the 126th Tournament of Roses Rose Parade. Donate Life's 2015 Rose Parade float entry inspires the world with The Never-Ending Story of organ, eye and tissue donation and transplantation.