A young Edina man who received a transplant finds a deep connection with the donor’s sister.
With each step, Connor Rabinowitz’s new heart began to pound.
The 18-year-old, newly graduated from Edina High School in 2006, walked toward the doors of a Seattle hotel lobby. Nancy Roberts and her daughter were there to meet him, completing a journey that had been more than a year in the making.
Tears streamed down Roberts’ face as she hugged Connor for the first time since he had received a transplanted heart from her son, Kellen, who had died of head injuries. She asked for a listen, then pressed her ear to Connor’s chest.
Through the embrace, Connor shifted his eyes to Kellen’s older sister, Erin.
“I looked over [Nancy’s] shoulder and there she was. … I caught eyes with Erin for the first time and I knew I wanted to be with her the rest of my life,” Connor said.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” said Erin, who sat nestled next to Connor on his brother’s couch during a holiday visit to south Minneapolis last month.
But this isn’t a simple love-at-first-sight story.
Erin was 25 when she and Connor met, and the mother of a young boy. Although she immediately felt a “unique bond’’ with the teen whose life was saved by her brother’s heart, it was not the “something more’’ that Connor felt.
Connor was a rising baseball star at Edina when he became ill in late 2004. He learned that a genetic disorder from his father’s side of the family had left him with cardiomyopathy, the deterioration of function in the heart muscle. Like a cousin before him, he needed a heart transplant.
He spent three months in the hospital waiting for one, kept alive with a mechanical heart.
On the night of March 7, 2005, Kellen Roberts, a healthy 22-year-old from Seattle, died from head injuries after an apparent assault while visiting a friend in Sioux Falls, S.D. His heart was a perfect match for Connor.
Three days after the transplant surgery, Connor awoke thinking, “It must have worked; I’m alive.’’
“It was the best day of my life and I felt like crap,” he said. “Someone had to die for me to get this heart.”
He was overwhelmed by a sense of obligation to honor Kellen, who was known for his generosity and outgoing personality. It was an obligation that would haunt him for years.
A simple thank-you letter from Connor’s mom to the anonymous donor sparked the families’ relationship. Connected through LifeSource, a nonprofit that coordinates organ and tissue donations in the Upper Midwest, the mothers began to write and talk. They eventually met in Seattle in November 2005. About a year later, Connor and Erin joined the reunions.
They visited a few more times until 2008, but communication faded for the next two years as both “got caught up in’’ their own lives, Erin said.
Connor tried without success to revive his baseball career at Minnesota State University, Mankato. His search for direction in his life led him to enter the field of medicine that gave him new life. In 2010, he left Mankato and enrolled at Argosy University in Eagan. He wanted to become a cardiovascular ultrasound technician.
He also realized he couldn’t forget Erin, still in Seattle. A random leap of faith, or his heart, pushed him to reach out to her through Facebook in early 2010. Within a week he was in Seattle. This meeting was far different from the one outside of the hospital.