Five days after her 2-year-old son, Cazmirr “Cash” Landers, was found unresponsive in a pool last August, Brooke Eaton was told there was nothing more doctors could do to save him. She decided to donate his organs, hoping that her friendly little boy — who never met a stranger — could answer someone’s prayers.
That same week, in a Minneapolis hospital room more than 450 miles away, another family was preparing for difficult news, too. Lola Bond, then just 5 months old, was in desperate need of a new heart. She wound up getting Cash’s.
Lola’s grandparents drafted a letter of thanks to Cash’s family but waited a couple of months before sending it. Finally they received word that the mother of the boy who gave his heart to their granddaughter wanted to meet.
That’s how, on Wednesday, Brooke Eaton of Pekin, Ill., was able to hear her son’s heartbeat once again. In the chapel at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, Eaton held Lola, a stethoscope put to Eaton’s ear and tears in her eyes. The drum-drum-drum was “crystal clear,” she said.
“I’m just so happy I can hear his heart, and I know that he’s living his life in her now,” Eaton said.
The reunion of sorts was a rare one. According to the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network, an Illinois nonprofit, fewer than 2% of organ recipients and donor families connect. Both sides must agree to exchange information.
“Everyone’s grief journey is different, and that’s not something that’s right for every family,” said Renata Krzyston, supervisor of donor family services with Gift of Hope. If families do decide to connect, the bond between an organ recipient and the relatives of a donor is often immediate.
For Jeffrey Vorel and Margaret Bond Vorel, Lola’s grandparents from Akeley, Minn., their emotions after receiving word of the “perfect heart” headed for their granddaughter were complicated. Margaret’s mind went to the then-unknown family that had made a selfless decision in the midst of their own grief.
“As excited as you’re supposed to be, all I could do was mourn [Eaton’s] loss, knowing that had to be the worst day of her life just as it turned out to be probably the best of ours,” said Bond Vorel, who with her husband shares custody of Lola with the baby’s mother.
Dr. Ashley Loomis, a pediatric critical care physician at Masonic Children’s Hospital, said each donor recipient family she’s worked with has expressed a similar mix of elation and guilt.
“Their heart is always with that other family as they receive such an amazing gift,” she said.
Cash, also nicknamed Bubby, was an energetic toddler, his mother said. Through his eyes, the world was huge and also entirely his.
“He wanted to explore all of it, probably on his bicycle,” she said.
Being Cash’s mother meant having hardly any quiet moments, she said. When Eaton would try to steal away for a quick workout, Cash would follow. When she’d start her exercises, there he was, mimicking her moves. If she was doing crunches or jumping jacks, so was he.
“He had a big heart,” Eaton said, catching herself as she realized the dual meaning of what she said.
Because of the age difference between the two children, Lola is still growing into her older transplanted heart. Born with 1p36 deletion syndrome, a genetic condition that causes mental and physical delays, Lola likely will face more health issues as she gets older. But her new heart gives her a chance to reach developmental milestones, Bond Vorel said.
“There’s no doubt we wouldn’t have Lola if it wasn’t for the miracle of receiving the heart,” she said.
So far, Lola’s heart has shown no signs of rejection. She’s more active than she was before the September 2018 transplant, when she could hardly lift her head off the hospital bed.
Everyone in the room agreed that the connection between the little girl and Cash’s mom was instantaneous. Lola repeatedly reached for Eaton and snuggled into her chest, and played with Eaton’s 4-year-old daughter, Cierra.
Though Cierra may be too young to understand how her little brother’s heart now beats in another child, she listened through the stethoscope and smiled at the sound.
“Do you hear Bubby’s heart?” her mom asked. The girl nodded.
Even after Eaton returns to Illinois, she’ll be able to hear her son’s — and now Lola’s — heartbeat. A music therapist at the hospital arranged a song that incorporates the sound.
Listening to that will help ease the waves of grief that continue, Eaton said. She’d like to find a way to put the sound into a necklace so she can hold it to her own chest.
“[Organ donation] is a beautiful gift to give to another child to live on and to still have a connection with your baby,” Eaton said. “Just like me and Lola — we’ll have a connection for the rest of our lives.”
On Wednesday, as the little girl cooed and reached her arms out to Eaton, it seemed Lola could sense it too.