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Getting a Second Wind

One day five years ago bubbly, gorgeous soccer goalie Korinne Shroyer came home from eighth grade, found her father's revolver in his closet and fired a bullet into her skull.

This is about the lives she saved doing it.

Out of a million kids you'd pick Korinne last to commit suicide. She was a popular kid in her class in Lynchburg, Va. But then she started feeling sad for no reason. Her parents took her to a therapist, who recommended Paxil. But one worry with Paxil is that it can give teenagers suicidal thoughts when they first start taking it. Korinne made it through 10 days.

That bullet tore a hole in her father, Kevin, that you could drive an 18-wheeler through. Korinne was Kevin's best friend, the kid who would Rollerblade with him as he ran for hours, the kid who'd come with him to Orioles games and chat with him until his ears hurt. "I used to run all the time," says Kevin Shroyer, 46. "I loved it because it gave me time to think. But [after the suicide], thinking was the last thing I wanted to do."

Kevin, an investigator in the public defender's office, and his wife, Kristie, a hairstylist, were able to think one clear and brave and terrifying thought during the six days Korinne survived after the shooting. They decided to send out her organs like gifts.

Her green eyes would go in one direction, her glad heart another, her kidneys still another. Her liver and her pancreas went somewhere else, and her two good lungs -- the ones that played the saxophone -- went to a Gainesville, Ga., man named Len Geiger, who was so close to dying that he was practically pricing caskets.

A runner and swimmer and nonsmoker, Geiger suddenly found one day that he only had enough breath for walking or talking, not both. Turns out he had genetic emphysema, also known as Alpha-1, and a lung transplant was his only hope for survival.

He was on his fifth year on the waiting list and "life wasn't worth living," he says, when Korinne pulled the trigger. Geiger received those two young lungs six days later in an operation at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

And that's where this story gets good.

Geiger, now 48, went from 15% lung function to way above average for his age. He got his second wind and his second life. He was so grateful, he wrote Korinne's parents to say thank you. And that letter changed everybody's lives.

Korinne's parents wrote back, and Geiger asked to meet, and next thing you knew Geiger was at a bittersweet gathering that became soaked with every kind of tears.

The Shroyers and their other daughter, Kolby, now 16, gave Geiger a photo album of the girl whose life was now inside him. "She starts out as this beautiful baby," Geiger says. "Then she's a little girl in a Halloween costume. Then a gorgeous teenager. And then the pictures just stop. It was the saddest thing I've ever experienced."

Hours later the group was parting when Kristie said, "Len? Can I ask you a favor?" She walked over and stood before him.

"Anything," Geiger said.

"Can I put my hands on your chest for just a second?"

And she stood there, crying, as she felt her dead daughter breathe.

Kevin started to run again. And someone had a great idea. Why didn't he and Len run together? So they did. They ran an 8K together, step for step, next to each other. One man's overflowing joy coming straight from the other's bottomless sorrow.

That whole run, Kevin never shut up. It was so unlike him that, at the end, Geiger asked him, "Why?"

"I had to," Kevin admitted, "because every time there was silence, I could hear Korinne breathing."

Next they ran a half marathon, then a full one. By then, though, the steroids that Geiger had taken for years just to stay alive had damaged most of his joints, and he was running on two artificial hips. The best he could do was race-walk. At the 17-mile mark his hips were screaming. But he refused to quit.

It took them six hours and 25 minutes -- with Shroyer matching him step by agonizing step -- but they finished, hands clasped together, the three of them.

Kevin and Kristie aren't whole yet, but they're getting on with their lives. Geiger, meanwhile, is relishing his. He met a woman, Christina, married her, and they named their first baby after Korinne -- Ava Corinne. Sometimes he stares at her, awed. "I know that without Korinne, I'm not here today and neither is Ava Corinne."

Sometimes life just takes your breath away, doesn't it?

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