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.
“The first time I had feelings for him was in 2010,” Erin said. “It was like a switch from young guy to a man. I watched him grow up.”
After he returned to Minnesota, Connor took another leap of faith: He told Erin of his deep affection for her.
While she couldn’t deny that she was attracted to him, it wasn’t as easy for her to reciprocate his feelings. “It was still really terrifying,” she said. “But I was elated.”
Not everyone around them felt the same way.
Nancy Roberts was concerned that her daughter was acting out of gratitude. Connor’s mother, Kim Schnepf, wanted to make sure the emotions were real and not out of obligation for the gift of Kellen’s heart. Erin’s friends were confused.
“My friends would ask me, ‘Isn’t it weird? Isn’t it like it’s your brother or your cousin?’ But it’s not,” Erin said. “Any weirdness people think of this, I think, is from a limited knowledge of organ transplant.
“Once you understand more, you’ll realize we’re not weirdos,” she said before sharing a laugh with Connor.
Now, more than two years later, family members are sold on the union.
Not a day passes that Connor, now 25, doesn’t think of Kellen and his heart. Whether in the morning when taking the eight prescribed pills that help keep his heart pumping, or when he catches a glimpse of the donor in a photo around his home.
Erin, 32, said she sees her brother in Connor’s free spirit, his laid-back personality and the weird things he says. She said she had never met anyone like Kellen. Whenever she really misses him, she rests her head on Connor’s chest.
“It’s a strong beat,” Erin said.
The couple, who live in Seattle and have spoken of marriage, believe Kellen bonded them together through the mourning and celebrating of his life.
“[Connor] understands on a level other people can’t. We’re aware of the sacrifice that had to be made,” Erin said. “I feel my brother chose him for me … as a last gift.”
Jason Gonzalez • 612-673-4494