The devastating phone call to the Heisler family came at 4 a.m. one Sunday in March. Their son Matt, a student at the University of North Dakota, had died in a house fire. He was just 21.
But fittingly for a young man described as tender, with a huge heart that was always in the right place, Matt was an organ donor. And so his heart beats on.
“It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that the heart I grew up with and felt in all of my hugs when I hugged him — that it is still out there somewhere,” his sister, Casey Heisler, told NBC affiliate KARE of Minneapolis.
The Heisler family — Casey and Matt’s parents, Jared and Cheryl — had been waiting to feel that heart again since it was transplanted into Tom Meeks, who lives in Washington state.
Because of Meeks' age and other health concerns, five hospitals refused to consider him for a heart transplant. But the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., gave him a lifeline, putting him on a waiting list, then giving him Matt’s heart.
Eight months after Matt died, his family went to meet Meeks in Rochester. The Heislers drove two hours from their home in Lakeville, Minn., to meet Tom, who was in town for a checkup.
“Obviously in my case they are going to have a very warm spot in my heart,” Meeks said before the meeting. “I woke up this morning and told Matt that mom and dad are coming today.”
And for a moment, the Heislers got to embrace the heart they love.
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Matt’s organs helped as many as 60 people. A 46-year-old woman received one of Matt's kidneys. The other went to a 56-year-old woman. The life of a 61-year-old man was saved by Matt's gift of a liver.
After their embrace, the Heislers listened to Matt’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. The sound left the family in tears. Tom will always be “a part of the family now,” said Jared. Adding that “getting to help this wonderful man, this Vietnam vet” has really helped the family.
Said Meeks, who, now has more time with his wife and four grandchildren, “It is the smallest favor for what I have received."