When I stand before God at the end of my life, I hope I have given away my talents, my love and my organs and can say, “God I used everything you gave me to benefit others. Anonymous
By Bob Aronson
The time had come. Claire Connelly was finally going to meet the man who had her son Paul’s heart. She would travel from southern to northern California by train to meet him. This trip was more than just an opportunity to meet the man, it was the culmination of a three-year long search. Claire was determined to let nothing get in the way of this meeting. She was so afraid that she might oversleep and miss her train, she drove to the Amtrak station the evening before and slept in her van in the parking lot. Meeting her son’s’ heart recipient had become Claire’s sole purpose in life, so when she boarded that train last Monday morning her heart was in her throat.
The recipient’s name is Ken, he cherishes his privacy and we agreed to identify him only by that name. He is retired and lives with his wife in a northern California city. Claire was not only invited to meet Ken and his wife, but also to stay in their home for a few days so they could get to know each other
Before we go any further, let me take a moment to remind you who Claire Connelly is. I wrote about her in a blog on October 21, 2016. To meet her, even by phone is to love her. She is kind, upbeat, considerate and passionate about life and living. Claire is your favorite aunt — you know, the one who is funny, always has a gift for you and really listens to what you have to say. She’s one of those people who brings energy and love of life into any conversation. When you talk; with Claire you can’t help but feel good.
Claire has suffered unimaginable pain in her life. She had three children, two boys and a girl. Now, only the daughter remains. Her son Pete died of cancer at the age of 46 in 2008, and 49-year-old Paul’s life was taken by a stroke in 2013. Losing two sons within five years is tragic enough, but Claire’s pain was compounded because they died on the same date — October 13. “What are the odds,” she asks. “What are the odds that you would lose two sons within five years of one another and on the same date on the calendar?”
When she was called to the hospital in 2013 Paul was on life support. His driver’s license indicated that he was an organ donor, so when asked if she wanted to donate his organs, Claire Agreed immediately. She does not know who got his other organs, but she’s satisfied to know that Ken got his heart.
I could feebly try to describe her feelings about meeting Ken, but that would be wrong. Her own words provide drama and emotion that I could not begin to write. When she got on the train on December 12, she carried with her some gifts for her son’s heart recipient along with a stethoscope so she could listen to his heart. As soon as she boarded, she sent me a text, “On the train. On way to meet Ken,” she said. Her writing describes the stream of random thoughts that somehow merged like two sets of railroad tracks. Claire kept a journal as the train sped north. If you close your eyes you can almost hear the clacking of the wheels on the track and the whistle being blown as intersections are crossed.
The words that follow are Claire’s from her journal. When you read them you will have the rare privilege of being able to listen in on a mom’s thoughts as she anticipates hearing her son’s beating heart for the first time in three years.
“Getting to meet Ken is the very best Christmas present I could have ever received, but let me make one thing very clear, this is not my story or Ken’s. My son Paul is the hero here. Long ago he made the decision to become an organ donor. All I did was to ensure that his wishes were fulfilled.
Ken and I have been speaking by phone since August 12 and now I’m actually on the train going to meet him and his wife. He is alive today because my wonderful son Paul made the
courageous decision to become an organ donor.
Ken has expressed his gratitude many times, but more than that he lives his gratitude. This kind gentleman will not drink alcohol or coffee because he has “too much respect” for Paul’s heart! Oh lord, my soul can finally rest knowing that Paul’s heart has found the best possible safe harbor. To know that I gave birth to the heart that is beating within this man’s chest and that he is sharing my own DNA as he sits across from me or goes about his day is something I can barely get my head around!
Recently I found a photo of a Paul when he was just four years old. He was holding his
fishing pole, Oh how he loved fishing and wouldn’t you know it, Ken loves fishing, too! I had that picture framed to give to Ken because that sport is his passion and I wanted him to know he had the heart of a fisherman. Strange but there were some other links I discovered, too. For example, they both drove the same model of pickup truck and both smoked the same type of Cigarillos.
Because of our telephone, text and email contact, I now have a bond with this remarkable man that is as close as any other I have and it warms my heart to know that he is in this world. What might appear to some as a quick four-day trip would be to miss the point. I’ve been on this journey for three long years, a journey that would reunite me with the essence of Paul. The anticipation of leaving the melancholy life i have known for the past three years and approaching a new fulfilling relationship with my new “son” kept me on the verge of tears until our initial embrace.”
When the train arrived and squeaked and squealed to a slow stop. Claire got up from her seat and headed for the door. Ken and Jan were there waiting for her. The meeting was almost wordless, yet spoke reams. Again, Claire’s words.
“Immediately when I got off the train there were lots of long hugs. It seems as though none of us wanted to let go, but eventually, we got in the car, had a lovely dinner and talked and hugged again till late in the evening.
The following day, we spent in our jammies, just hanging out at the house, everyone comfortable with each other. That’s when I brought out the mementos. A coffee mug that said, “I had a change of heart,” Paul’s fishing picture, Paul’s key ring, a special pencil that was engraved with Paul’s name and some other things that I either made or purchased. Ken loved all of them, he even has a collection of keys.
Still in our jammies, we continued to talk as we set up and decorated the Christmas tree. We
had so much fun doing it, it was so meaningful we committed to making it a tradition and doing it every year.
Finally, I hollered into the living room, “Ken, bring that heart in here, I want to listen to it.” I had my stethoscope in my hand.
He stood in front of me and with the earpieces in, I touched the chest piece to where I thought his heart was but heard nothing. I kept trying but couldn’t seem to find it and
It was then that Ken took my hand and the stethoscope chest piece and placed it on his heart. Then — then I heard the soft, steady, rhythm, “Thump thump – thump
I was listening to my son’s heart again. My eyes filled with tears and I got a lump in my throat, I couldn’t stop listening. Paul’s heart was keeping this lovely man alive. I thought to myself, I can now rest. The long wait is over and I no longer have to wonder. I am at long last at peace with the world. I finally heard Paul’s heart. A part of my son was alive and well.
Ken told me that just before the transplant, the Surgeon asked him if he wanted to see the heart. When he looked, it started to beat and the doctor said, “This heart wants to live,” and the procedure was started. Ken said he was told that his transplant only took seven hours, a much shorter time than usual. He was also told it was the smoothest, least complicated transplant the Doctor had done.”
Hearts are amazing organs. A man’s heart, for example, beats 70 times a minute. A woman’s heart is a little faster. The thumping sound you hear is really the sound of the four valves opening and closing in a process that pumps a million barrels of blood in an average lifetime. To do so it will beat 2.5 billion times. To put it in perspective, If you were to turn on your kitchen faucet all the way and let it run for 45 years, that would be equivalent to the amount of blood a heart pumps in a lifetime. That’s pretty amazing.
All good things must end it is said, and so it was for this visit. After four days together Ken and Jan took Claire to the train station for the ride home. It was bittersweet. Bitter because she didn’t’ really want to leave, but sweet because she had so many wonderful memories to carry with her and sustain her. Claire finally had some kind of closure. Again, her words.
“When we got to the train, Ken boarded with me to make sure I was comfortable. He seemed very concerned about me and did everything he could to make sure I would have a pleasant trip back home. I sat there for a few minutes and then felt I just had to see him one more time, so I got up and went to the door and, and there he was, waving and saying, “Bye mom, bye.”
Now I’m home again with so many wonderful memories and with so many pictures to remind me of my journey and of my new son. I will go back, we will meet again. I don’t know where or when, but it will happen.”
When Claire spoke of meeting Ken and Jan again, I could almost hear that wonderful song playing in the background.
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know
We’ll meet again
Some sunny day
Keep smilin’ through
Just like you
‘Til the blue skies drive
The dark clouds
Bob Aronson is a 2007 heart transplant recipient and the founder of this blog which contains nearly 300 posts on donation/transplantation and associated issues. If you need a support group, please join Facebook’s Organ Transplant Initiative. And if you are not yet an organ donor, sign up now, it takes almost none of your time and you can do it from where you are sitting. Log on to http://www.donatelife.net and make the commitment now. Then, tell your family your decision so there is no confusion when the time comes.