Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about the Leeman family and the legacy of Emma Grace, an 11-month-old who suffered fatal injuries while in the care of a babysitter. Part Two will be posted Thursday, with a focus on the family’s thoughts about the babysitter’s jury trial and sentencing, as well as the next steps the Leemans intend to take in telling Emma’s story.
By Liz Shepherd
PIERCETON — A chunky, spunky, happy, giggly toddler, Emma Grace Leeman was always smiling and laughing. Every night before the Leeman family would go to bed, Sherry and Nick, Emma’s mother and father; and Addison, Emma’s older sister, would gather on the parents’ bed and have wrestling matches and tickle fights.
“My favorite memory of her was teaching her how to say ‘tickle, tickle, tickle, tickle,'” said Sherry. “She would just get her little tongue in between her teeth and she’d go ‘tickle, tickle, tickle.’ It was so cute, the way she did it.”
Emma Grace was a week shy of turning one year old when April 12, 2018, changed the lives of multiple people. After a fatal traumatic brain injury while in her babysitter’s care, Emma Grace’s heart, liver and kidneys were donated to three recipients.
The decision to donate her organs happened quickly.
“It fell out of my mouth,” said Sherry on asking doctors about Emma donating her organs. “And then I looked at (Nick) and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I spoke before I even talked to you.’ And he was like, ‘No, I’m thinking the same thing.’ I think it was just thinking that how bad we felt at that moment, somebody else was feeling that bad too. I just didn’t want to have a funeral and then nothing. At least it was some sort of light knowing that other people’s prayers were going to get answered.”
“I never even really thought twice about it,” said Nick. “I’ve been one (an organ donor) ever since I got my driver’s license. It’s kind of a blasé way of thinking about it, but I’m not using it. So somebody else can. Why not? Why wouldn’t it apply to a loved one the same way?”
The babysitter, Courtney Kincaid, was recently sentenced for aggravated battery and neglect of a dependent resulting in death; the Leemans sat down afterward with InkFreeNews to discuss their daughter’s life and their thoughts on court proceedings.
Two of Emma’s organ recipients are three-year-old children, the same age that Emma would be today. Nick and Sherry contacted all three of Emma’s recipients via letter. When contacting donors’ loved ones or organ recipients, letters are screened through the Indiana Donor Network. In the letters, last names and locations are not allowed to be used. After receiving responses from the children’s parents, Sherry immediately began researching online and found the children’s mothers. Since then, all of the children’s parents have talked frequently.
Deacon, a boy from North Carolina, received Emma’s liver; Aislin, a girl from Delaware whose birthday is April 12 – the date of Emma’s injury – received her heart.
Emma Grace’s kidneys went to a woman in her 60s; however, the woman has not contacted the Leemans.
“We’re told that she’s still living, it’s still a successful surgery,” said Sherry. “That’s not uncommon when an adult receives a child’s organs, it’s the survivor’s guilt. They don’t know what to say to a child’s parents. But she’s living and that’s all we ever hoped for.”
The Leemans spoke at an Indiana Donor Network summit in Indianapolis, in front of 400 medical personnel, about their journey and Emma Grace’s life.
“When I told them during our presentation that we were saving our pennies because we wanted to go and meet the recipients someday, everyone got word of it and was like, ‘We need a fundraiser,'” said Sherry.
“We had people we’d never met handing us money on the spot,” said Nick.
Last fall, the Leemans took a trip to meet both Deacon and Aislin.
Hotels in North Carolina and Delaware gave the family free rooms for the trip, with a local car rental giving them a discount for a vehicle.
The family first went to North Carolina to visit Deacon and his family. Deacon’s family rented out a small fire station and welcomed the Leemans to the area with a party.
“They were wonderful people,” said Sherry. “It was really neat.”
While visiting Aislin’s family, Sherry and Nick took Addison and Aislin to see “Frozen II,” a Disney film series that holds a lot of significance for the Leemans. Addison is blonde like the older sister in the movie, Elsa; while Emma Grace is a redhead like the youngest sister, Anna.
“The sisters (in the movie) are always trying to save each other and we were bawling through the whole movie,” said Sherry.
Aislin’s family also held a birthday party for Addison, who turned six while the Leemans were on vacation.
“I can kind of watch them grow up and see what it would have been like to watch Emma grow up,” said Sherry about the recipients.
The family talks with Deacon and Aislin’s families on a weekly basis, with both children’s mothers contacting the Leemans every day of the babysitter’s jury trial.
Emma Grace’s story and heroic organ donation have also inspired others to do the same for their loved ones amidst tragedy.
“A lot more people can donate than you would think,” said Nick.
“People think because of past drug history, because of underlying problems like diabetes or asthma, maybe they won’t be able to use your lungs, but they can use so much more,” said Sherry. “You might as well just go ahead and check the box. If you’re gone, you’re gone. You might as well try. So you can’t save your kid, but you can save somebody else’s kid and who wouldn’t want that honor? They thank us all the time, but I thank them because they allow Emma to keep moving.”
Though Emma Grace is gone, she lives on, not only through organ donation but also through her family’s focus on continuing to tell her story.
Since Emma Grace’s passing, the Leemans and their extended family have talked with two families about organ donation. Both families also lost young children to tragedies. Through talking to the Leemans, the two families decided to have the children donate and become heroes.
“I feel like Emma is still out there saving lives by just her story being out there,” said Sherry. “If I don’t get the chance to talk to the parents, somebody else knows Emma’s story and they’re telling them.”