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I Will Never Meet Him But I Will Hold His Heart

After my heart transplant, we were told to wait around a year before trying to contact the donor family. During that year, I thought about my donor often. Where were they from? How old were they? What led to them becoming an organ donor? 

Anonymity is a vital part of the organ donation process. With the ability to find things so easily with a few select keywords on Google, the transplant teams do not give recipients any more information about the donor than is absolutely needed. Sometimes donor families don’t want to meet recipients and sometimes recipients don’t want to meet donor families. This is what keeps the organ donation process running and is something that needs to be respected.

A Stranger’s Heart

My first few months post-transplant I was in recovery mode but after I started feeling more like myself and going out and doing more things, my donor would pop into my mind. Had they ever been to Disney World? Did I take this heart on its first trip to the Midwest? Had my donor ever left the country?

It was interesting to think about. This vital piece of me, that belonged to a stranger, I knew virtually nothing about. Where had this heart been before?

Near the end of my first year post-transplant, I finally decided to sit down and type my letter to the donor family. The letter was one page long and include my gratitude for their loved one’s gift, the circumstances around why I needed a heart transplant, and an offer to meet if they were ever interested. It was a relief when I finally sent my letter out to LifeCenter NW (the organization that procured the heart) to have them deliver it to my donor family. The ball was now in their court. If they wanted to respond, they could. If they didn’t, then that would be the end of it and I would go on with little information about my donor but still a grateful heart.

The Response

Several months passed after I sent the letter. Then one day I got a call from my transplant social worker telling me that there was a letter for me from the donor family. When I got the news, there were a lot of emotions but primarily I was excited to finally have my curiosity sated. This could be the first step toward having a chance to express my gratitude in person with my donor’s family.

The next week I wrote a short reply letter back to the donor family, including my email address, for LifeCenter NW to send back to them. Not long after, I began a dialog with my donor family via email. That was in August 2019 and, after a few exchanged emails, it was decided that my family and I would make the trip out to see them over Labor Day weekend.

A Meeting of Hearts

How do you plan for a meeting with people you have never met before but whose son’s heart is beating in your chest? This isn’t the type of encounter that many people ever have nor is it one where anyone would want to be a part of. Either you are a) A recipient who was on the verge of death whose life, although extended through organ donation, is irrevocably changed or b) Have a loved one who has passed away and now your life is left with an unfillable void from the loss.

To help me devise what to expect out of this meeting, I turned to the heart transplant survivor Facebook groups I joined post-transplant. I’m not extremely active in these groups but the information contained within them is invaluable. From those waiting on a heart to survivors 30+ years out from their transplants; knowledge and experiences are vast with an answer to almost any question you may have on a topic.

Although no two experiences were the same, I was comforted by reading each recipient’s story about meeting their donor family. Some were quick with the recipient and donor family not really keeping in contact. Some were intimate, with recipients being welcomed into the family – invitations to weddings, playing with the deceased’s children, and regular inclusion in family events.

Of course, with a little searching on the internet, you can’t help but come across those videos. You know the ones I’m talking about. They are just as bad as those military homecoming videos. I’m not going to lie, I can’t get enough of them. Maybe we are all just looking for a good reason to cry sometimes? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, type recipient meets donor family in Google. Don’t forget the tissues…

Meeting My Hero’s Family

When Labor Day weekend arrived, I felt as prepared as I could be for the meeting with my donor family. That Saturday we were going to meet them in a park. No real details beyond that had been discussed so I didn’t really know what members of his family would be there or how long they would like to meet. I left all of this up to them and was willing to be flexible to whatever suited them best. Their son/brother/uncle had given me life. The least I could do was work around their schedules over the holiday weekend.

When we arrived at the park, we found a blue canopy set up close to the playground. Under the canopy were tables with food, photos albums, and a poster filled with pictures. When my donor’s parents saw me, they immediately came over to give me a hug and welcomed me to sit down. I brought a bear with my heartbeat in it and a stethoscope for them to listen to their son’s heart.

Talking with the donor family under the canopy

My donor’s family was incredibly nice and open with me. Along with his parents, his brother and sister were there along with a few nieces and nephews. They reminded me of my own family in many ways which helped me to feel more comfortable. They told me about their son. First just the normal things anyone tells you about a person you have never met. As the afternoon wore on, however, various fun family stories started popping up. And as it got even later, more serious matters came to light. One of those matters being the how and the why of how we ended up where we were that day.

I Forgot The Tissues

I experienced many emotions on that day. I’m not typically an emotional person but my tears flowed sporadically throughout that afternoon’s meeting. How could they not though? The whole thing was just so incredibly sad. When I finally looked at the poster filled with pictures of my donor, I felt a lump start to grow in my throat. In those pictures was a young man. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, tall and a bit lanky. 

I thought about his family. Having my own children, I imagined myself in his mother’s place. Whenever the thought of anything even remotely bad happening to my kids pops into my mind, the tears well in my eyes. Children are not supposed to die before their parents. There is nothing that I can imagine in this life worse than the loss of your own child. 

My husband and myself with my donor’s parents

I Will Never Meet Him But I Will Hold His Heart

I’m very happy that I had the chance to meet my donor’s family. I had wondered about my donor and his family for months. Finally getting the chance to meet them has, in a way, closed up a few holes in my heart. Now it is not so much walking around with some stranger’s heart in my chest. Now I feel as if I am carrying his heart with all of the warmth and love from his family. I have knowledge of who he was and a responsibility to live a life worthwhile for both of us.

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