Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Late daughter’s heart beats on in transplant recipient
For Indiana mom Amber Morgan, hearing her child’s heartbeat is not something she takes for granted.
She remembers first hearing the heartbeat of her daughter Andreona when she was pregnant, and again when Andreona was on life support at age 20, battling asthma complications that ultimately led to her passing.
Now, nearly five years later, Morgan had the rare opportunity to hear that special sound once again through Tom Johnson, who is living with Andreona’s heart as a transplant recipient.
“As a mother, you listen to your child’s heartbeat when you carry them, and I don’t think you ever ask to hear it again,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
In an emotional meeting at a downtown hotel in Chicago Saturday morning, Morgan experienced her late daughter, who died in 2018, living on in Tom’s chest. It was a moment for the families to celebrate both Andreona’s life and Tom’s new one after his long struggles with heart problems.
The Indiana Donor Network coordinates fewer than 30 of these meetings between organ transplant recipients and donor families each year. They only occur when donor families consent to meet the recipients.
“This is just a big blessing for me to meet Amber,” Tom said. “I was praying virtually every night that this would happen. I always referred to my donor, and now I have a name. It’s just unbelievable beyond words.”
The event was also unique its timing, with just over a week of planning.
“Sometimes it takes like months or even longer to get this going,” Tom said. “I was so excited. I couldn’t miss it.”
For the big day, Tom and his wife of 48 years, Sharon, traveled from Kankakee. Morgan came from South Bend, Indiana, with her granddaughter, six-year-old Avery Williams.
Upon seeing each other for the first time, Morgan and Tom embraced each other tightly. Morgan was then able to take a pink stethoscope and put it to Tom’s chest, hearing a sound she didn’t know she would ever get to hear again. She hugged him again as she listened.
“It’s almost like I got to hug my daughter again,” Morgan said.
Tom first sent a letter to Morgan around Christmastime in 2019. He said it took him a long time to write it after a “challenging recovery,” but he wanted to share his gratitude for the family’s decision to donate.
He then sent a second letter but didn’t hear back. That is, until about a week ago, when Morgan responded with her interest in setting up a meeting. She said after experiencing a heart attack herself, she felt inspired to reach out and finally meet the person carrying her daughter’s heart.
“I read the letter and you hear about it, you know she’s in somebody else and helping them, but to actually hear and see the result, it’s amazing,” Morgan said. “She made me so proud throughout her whole life, and she still makes me proud.”
When a smiling Avery got take her turn to listen to the heart, Morgan asked her what it sounded like. Avery mimicked the thumping sound and handed the stethoscope to Tom for him to listen too.
Morgan then asked Avery where her ‘TT’ was. It’s a kind of nickname for “auntie,” Morgan said.
Avery replied that she was in heaven. When Morgan asked, “Where’s her heart?” she proudly responded by pointing to Tom’s chest.
In a statement to the Tribune, Jamie Rivas, director of family and donor services at Indiana Donor Network, said the gift of organ donation can create a “sense of hope and healing” after the loss of a loved one.
When asked about her late daughter, Morgan recalls her generous nature, saying Andreona was active in the community and would host food drives and other events in low-income areas. While her condition didn’t stop her from reaching her goals, Morgan said Andreona struggled with asthma her entire life, unable to do the same activities other children could.
When she passed away young, the family chose to donate her organs to help save lives. That decision has saved three people so far, including 68-year-old Tom.
“She’s living through him,” Morgan said. “Now she’s able do all the things that she couldn’t really do for similar reasons as him. She would also run out of breath, but hers was asthma.”
Tom received his cardiomyopathy diagnosis at age 7 and has since suffered multiple heart-related issues. He said growing up, it was almost a summer ritual to go to a local children’s hospital for testing. He got his first heart catheterization at 11 years old. He later developed congestive heart disease.
After trying a pacemaker and defibrillator, a doctor told Johnson that they had no other choice than undergo a heart transplant.
Johnson sat on the transplant waiting list for 18 months. On their granddaughter’s birthday in December 2018, Tom and Sharon received the late night call that changed their lives. He would be receiving Andreona’s heart at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.
Sharon already had a gut feeling of what was about to happen after she realized it was the hospital calling.
“I started crying because when we left the doctor’s office, they said we’d never get a heart, and I said, good Lord knows, if you’re supposed to get a heart, you’re gonna get a heart,” she said. “What a blessing for us.”
She also said the date of the transplant, the 19th, holds special meaning, as their wedding date is October 19. When thinking back to the surgery, she remembers the relief she felt when a nurse came to tell her that Andreona’s heart was a perfect match.
“It was just like, thank you God, here goes our journey for improvement, and it took us a long time to get there,” Sharon said.
It was a time for healing for both families, as Andreona’s funeral was held around Christmas, and Tom started his recovery from the transplant. Johnson would spend the next several months in the hospital as he started physical therapy and learned how to walk again.
Now, nearly five years into his second chance at life, Johnson, a retired nurse, respiratory therapist and health care IT manager, is doing things he never could — long bike rides, treadmill runs and the ability to walk up stairs without tiring easily.
Tom has attended weddings, baseball games, dance recitals and other family occasions with his children and grandchildren, all things he didn’t think he would have the chance to do. He’s also about to become a great grandparent in January.
Sharon remembers watching her husband get to play soccer with his grandkids for the first time after the procedure. She said the kids gasped in amazement when they saw how high he could kick the ball in the air.
“It opened up a whole New World of possibilities,” Tom said. “It’s just unbelievable. I mean, I can work out in the garden, ride the bike. My sons can’t believe how quick I can go.”
Both Morgan and Tom described the Saturday meeting as a “new beginning” for the families. Sharon said she is grateful for the time she now gets with her husband, thanks to the gift from the Morgans, and assured that Adreona’s heart will always be looked after.
“He takes very special care of her,” Sharon said. “He never misses his heart medication. Never.”