The heart that connects Rachel Cradduck to a family in Mexico was transplanted into her son Ethan Robbins at Seattle Children’s Hospital when he was just five months old. It came from a baby who died in a California hospital after her family traveled there for medical care.
“A heart transplant is a bittersweet thing,” says Rachel. “During Ethan’s transplant and every day since, I have been deeply aware that another family suffered a tragic loss. I wanted to thank them for the incredible thing they did.”
Rachel had her chance last fall – about a year and a half after Ethan’s transplant – through a unique video teleconference arranged by Seattle Children’s Heart Center and Telemedicine teams at Children’s, and on the other end by Sierra Donor Services (SDS), the Sacramento-based organ procurement organization that helped facilitate the transplant.
On a Sunday in October, Rachel and Ethan, along with Ethan’s grandmother and aunt, sat in a conference room at Seattle Children’s Bellevue Clinic and Surgery Center. The parents, aunt, grandmother and big sister of the heart donor were in a room 600 miles away in Sacramento, where they were attending an SDS donor recognition ceremony.
Rachel doesn’t speak Spanish and the other family doesn’t speak English, so an SDS staff member translated.
But the emotions on both sides of the conversation required no translation.
“Ethan is alive and healthy because of a completely selfless decision this family made during the very worst time in their lives,” says Rachel. “There’s no way I can ever thank them enough for that, but I had to try.”
Different states, same virtual room
Rachel reached out to the donor’s family soon after Ethan’s transplant, with the understanding that she may never receive a response. Jason Hopper Cruz, transplant coordinator, channeled Rachel’s letter to LifeCenter Northwest, which sent it to its California counterpart, SDS (this is the standard conduit for communication between organ donor and recipient families).
Many months later, Jason heard that the donor family was planning to travel to Sacramento for a donor recognition ceremony at SDS, and that they wanted to meet Ethan and his family. SDS was willing to pay travel costs for Rachel and Ethan, but Ethan was scheduled for medical procedures that made travel impossible.
Jason looped in Kathy Salmonson, regional nurse liaison in Care Coordination, who in turn asked Justin Passey in Audio Visual Telemedicine if a video teleconference might be feasible.
“When we figured out we could do this through teleconference, people here went out of their way to make sure it would happen,” says Kathy.
Vicky Owens, manager of Donor Family Services at SDS, says she was moved by the positive response and creative thinking at Children’s. “I just want to thank everyone there,” she says. “This meeting meant so much to the donor baby’s family. It really touched their hearts to have a chance to see Ethan.”
‘We’re joined together by a heart’
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2,321 patients in the U.S. had heart transplants last year. Of these, 377 were under age 18 and 106 were less than a year old.
Behind each heart transplant is a story of tragic loss and unparalleled generosity.
“I have worked with many families, and I am always amazed by their willingness to think of others in the midst of their own tragedy,” says Vicky. “This family was particularly amazing because they weren’t even in their home country. They didn’t speak the language.
“Generosity and compassion transcend language,” she adds. “It has its own language, and we are fortunate to see that many times over.”
Ethan was the 100th patient to receive a heart transplant at Children’s; since then, another 27 transplants have taken place here. Still, the need for hearts is always greater than the number available; today, six Children’s patients are waiting for hearts.
Rachel says meeting the family of Ethan’s heart donor fundamentally altered her worldview.
“It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had, including Ethan’s heart transplant,” she says. “I’ve never met people as genuine, generous and caring as that family. We’re joined together by a heart, and that has made the world a little smaller.”
She hopes and believes that the meeting was a comfort for the other family.
“They told me it was a relief to see that Ethan is a healthy, happy baby,” she says. “They told me that we will always be a part of their family. And they told me that once in a lifetime, we should each do something for which we can never be repaid.”