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On Jan. 15, 2014, Debbie Pollino got the news every parent dreads. The Fort Thomas, Kentucky, woman learned that her 36-year-old son, Nick, had been in a car accident. He died the next day as a result of his injuries.
But a part of him lives on, thanks to a generous decision Debbie made. In the midst of her own grief, she donated Nick’s organs. It was a decision made easier because of a conversation she’d had with her son just two months before his death.
“We were driving home from a Thanksgiving trip and stopped for gas,” Debbie says. She asked Nick to get her wallet from her purse. He saw her driver’s license and noticed she was a registered organ donor. “He told me he was, too.”
At the time of Nick’s accident, 58-year-old Brian Cline was living day by day, and just barely. The Lake Crystal resident had experienced heart trouble for nearly 20 years, first surviving several heart attacks and then a virus that damaged his heart.
Eventually, Brian’s cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, John Haley, M.D., recommended Brian be seen by his advanced heart failure colleagues at Mayo Clinic in Rochester as his condition was progressing and not responding to treatment. In Rochester, doctors confirmed the diagnosis of advanced heart failure. Because the condition was progressing in spite of treatment, Brian was told he would need a heart transplant. Doctors implanted a mechanical pump to help his heart do its job while he waited for a compatible donor heart to become available.
“He was in end-stage organ failure,” says Brian’s wife, Tami. “He was really sick.”
It was a hard position to be in, Brian says. “How do we pray for a heart when we know that means someone else’s life has to end?”
On Jan. 17, 2014, Brian received the call he’d been waiting for. A heart was heading his way.
“They told us it was an amazing heart,” says Tami. “They said it was absolutely beautiful.”
Nick’s beautiful heart restored Brian to health. Two years after his transplant, he and his family wrote a letter to Debbie to thank her for it.
She’d written first, following strict policies that govern initial communication between donor families and organ recipients. In her letter, Debbie had written about Nick — about his free spirit, his love of family and the outdoors. The organization that helped coordinate the transplant shared Debbie’s letter with the many people who received Nick’s organs and tissues. No one but Brian sent a letter back.
“I couldn’t wait to get a letter,” Debbie says. One letter led to another, then to phone calls and finally, on Labor Day weekend 2016, to a meeting.
As well as a reunion. In a dusty parking lot in Lake Crystal, more than two years after she last saw her son, Debbie once again felt Nick’s amazing, beautiful heart beating. She also received a gift from Brian: a teddy bear with a recording of her son’s heartbeat inside.
“The staff at Mankato helped me do that,” Brian says. “They worked for two days to get a good recording.”
The effort was worth it. “When we gave the bear to Debbie, she would not let go of it,” Brian says. “Doing that for her was the best thing I ever did.”
Debbie says meeting Brian felt like an answer to prayers.
“I would pray that the person who received Nick’s heart would be similar to him,” she says. “I prayed he would be as comfortable in someone else’s body as he was in his own. I thank God every day that his heart went to the right place.”