Over Labor Day weekend many of us will spend time with family and loved ones. Debbie Pollino of Fort Thomas will travel to Minnesota to meet a stranger who has her deceased son’s heart and listen to it beat for the first time in over two years.
Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare and for Debbie, the nightmare came true in January 2014. Her son Nick had been at an early morning meeting and always called on his way back from there to her house. She waited for the call but it never came, so she called his cell phone. A police officer answered and told her that Nick had been in an accident on I-275 and was taken to University Hospital. When she arrived at the hospital doctors were performing emergency surgery, removing part of his skull to allow his brain room to swell but after a short time it was clear that he wasn’t going to make it.
Debbie was already aware that Nick was an organ donor. As Debbie’s only child, Nick and her were very close and they had discussed organ donation in the past.
“The November before, at Thanksgiving, we were driving home from a trip to Pittsburgh, we’d stopped for gas and I asked Nick to pass me a card out of my wallet. He saw on my license that I was a registered organ donor and told me he was too. We talked about how important it was.”
At the hospital, doctors were aware that Nick was an organ donor and the Life Center, the non-profit which oversees organ donation in SW Ohio and Northern Kentucky, became involved. They showed Debbie documents that Nick had signed giving his consent for organ donation but Debbie already knew his wishes.
Even at this early stage Debbie says Nick’s generosity in becoming an organ donor and helping others helped her in her grieving process:
“He passed on January 16th, on the morning of January 17th I was getting ready to go to the funeral home to arrange Nick’s memorial. The Life Center called and could already tell me where all of the organs were headed. Knowing that he was helping others helped with the mourning.”
Nick’s donations immediately went to help eight people “As well as his heart, both kidneys went to different people, his
liver was split in two, because it can regrow, it went to two separate people,
his corneas, skin, tissue and bone were all transplanted.” Every organ helped to improve someone else's quality of life in some way. After
Nick passed, Debbie asked that any memorial donations went to the Life Center
in his honor. Afterwards she stayed in contact with the Life Center and
volunteered with them, speaking at schools to help educate kids who are about
to receive their driver’s license about the importance of organ donation.
She made the decision to write a letter, through the Life Center, to the people who had received Nick’s donated organs. “The letters had to be anonymous, I could only tell them Nick’s first name, that he was from Kentucky and a little about him.” The letters were then distributed by Life Center, if recipients didn’t want them, or didn’t want to reply, that was their decision. Brian Cline, who had received Nick’s heart was the only recipient to reply.
He wrote to Debbie exactly two years to the day after Nick’s heart was transplanted into his body. He told her that he’d been very sick and had been on the transplant registry for six months. He told her about his wife Tammy and his two sons Jacob, who works in Minneapolis, and Cody, who is about to be a college freshman. He told her that he probably wouldn’t be here with them without Nick’s heart.
Debbie and Brian decided to stay in touch and signed disclaimers to that effect with the Life Center, allowing them to get in direct contact. Debbie suggested they meet and Brian agreed. Having been in contact since May of this year, Debbie agreed to drive up to meet Brian and his family over Labor Day weekend. She’ll meet Brian, Tammy and his sons on Saturday and on Sunday they’ll have a picnic when she can meet his extended family and friends. Brian and his family will make the return trip to Fort Thomas to meet Nick’s family and friends on September 30th.
No parent ever gets over the passing of their child and with Nick being only 36 and Debbie’s only child his death was “devastating” to Debbie. But this weekend she says feeling his heart beat in another man’s body will mean that a small part of him is still alive:
“Nick was so generous when he was alive and the fact that he’s helped so many people, even after his passing really helps me. A part of him is still alive, his heart is still beating. Brian’s family has had him with them when they wouldn’t have. It’s miraculous to me that they can take the heart out of someone and put it in someone else and it keeps beating. It’s just amazing.”
Family friend Marquita Lonaker agrees “Nick always gave off such positive energy. He was always smiling. Debbie is the same way. She’s the most caring and selfless person I have ever met. I hope she finds peace in feeling Nick’s heartbeat once again.”