Why Thanksgiving Comes Every Day for 3 Pittsburgh-Area Men

They owe their lives to one man who lives on in each of them.

Brian McTiernan and Mary Grace Hensell | Photos courtesy of Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy


When Mary Grace Hensell lost her 24-year-old son Brian in a car accident five years ago, it seemed impossible to heal.

Brian died while driving to his construction job in North Versailles.

“It's like having your heart torn out with no anesthesia,” Hensell said. “I'm expected to go on, to make a living, to be a mother to my other son…you only do it because you have to.”

(left) Brian McTiernan and John Chomko

Hensell was grieving and did not originally respond to letters from two of the men who received Brian’s organs — Fox Chapel native John Chomko, 59, who lives with her son’s liver and Brian McTiernan, 61, from Sewickley, who now has Brian’s kidney and pancreas.

It wasn’t until Hensell discovered a man was living with her son’s heart that she decided to open up. Thirteen weeks after Butler resident Melvin Protzman, 63, underwent his heart transplant, Hensell left him a message:

“Mr. Protzman, I need to talk to you,” she said. “I think you have my son's heart.”

In a follow-up call, the two spoke on the phone for for four hours about Brian and the miracle of his gift.

(l-r) Brian McTiernan, John Chomko, Melvin Protzman & Mary Grace Hensell


“Losing a child is the hardest thing a parent can endure. But I am thankful for the knowledge that my son lives on because of his generous heart,” Hensell said.

Recently, the families were able to meet face-to-face over a Thanksgiving dinner at Family House in Shadyside.

Hensell shared stories about her son’s life, his girlfriend, his love of animals and much more. She even created photo albums for each of the organ recipients so that they could see their donor’s life.


Laughter mixed with tears as four bonded over the mutual miracle of life and the power of loving memories.

“I know I have a debt that I can never repay,” McTiernan said. “But I will honor Brian’s memory by doing everything I can to follow his example and save lives by urging everyone to register as an organ donor.”

“I am thankful for every day and for every single breath,” Protzman said. “Because one man made the selfless and heroic decision to give the gift of life, I get to be with my family.”

Eight thousand people in Pennsylvania are on the organ transplant waiting list, according to  Susan Stuart, President and CEO of the Center for Organ Recovery & Education.

One organ donor can save up to eight lives and each tissue donor can improve an additional 50 lives.

Learn more about organ donation by visiting www.donatelifepa.org/registration.

(l-r) Debbie McTiernan, Abby McTiernan, Brian McTiernan, Linda Chomko, Mary Grace Hensell (with photo of Brian Hensell), Katherine Chomko, John Chomko, Audrey Sico, Marc Hensell, Melvin Protzman, Louis Sico, Heather Perry.


Categories: The 412