By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
MINNEAPOLIS – They walked up to Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew one at a time, each smiling wide and following the same script.
“Hi, I’m Joel: Number 670 … February 16, 2009.”
“Hi, I’m Ken: Number 692 … October 25, 2009.”
“Hi, I’m Mandy: Number 766 … August 17, 2012.”
This was the shorthand they’ve developed, the snapshot version of their stories – offering their name, what number heart transplant recipient they were at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and the date they received their lifesaving gift.
Like Carew, these members of the Second Chance for Life Foundation were at Target Field on Friday night for the Minnesota Twins’ annual game celebrating organ donation. By coincidence, the group was seated in the suite next to Carew and his guests.
The chance encounter was such a huge thrill for everyone in the foundation suite that as Carew left, one Twins-loving transplant recipient said to another, “It doesn’t get any better than that.” Yet the truth is, Carew enjoyed it as much as they did. Because for all he has in common with the players on the field and his fellow Twins Hall of Famers also in the stadium on this night, these are the people Carew feels most connected with these days, just eight months after he joined their ranks as a transplant recipient.
“Other people don’t understand what a gift we’ve received,” Carew told his new friends. “How do you say thank you?”
Carew’s life changed forever in September 2015 when heart disease arrived with a vengeance. He suffered the kind of heart attack so devastating it’s called the “widow maker,” followed by multiple episodes of cardiac arrest. Good health and fitness helped pull him through, although he was soon diagnosed with extreme heart failure.
He needed a transplant, but his body was too traumatized. Doctors instead implanted a machine called a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD. He recovered enough to spend the first half of 2016 spreading the word about fighting heart disease through Heart of 29, a campaign he launched with the American Heart Association; the name came from the jersey number he wore throughout his career.
About this time last year, his health took a turn for the worse. He eventually got on the waiting list for a new heart and kidney, then moved to top-tier status on Dec. 9. His transplant came a week later.
That alone makes for an amazing tale. But this saga moved into the realm of extraordinary.
Carew discovered his donor was Konrad Reuland, a former NFL player who died following a ruptured brain aneurysm. Their heart is the first to go from one pro athlete to another. Reuland also went to middle school with Carew’s children; donor and recipient crossed paths at least once, when Reuland was 12. Plus, Reuland died at age 29, ratcheting up the significance of the name “Heart of 29.”
So, how does Carew say thank you?
He offers those words often to Konrad’s parents, Mary and Ralf Reuland, and he’s given them a standing offer to listen to Konrad’s heart whenever they want. A few weeks ago, they took that a step further.
Ralf is a physician and works with another doctor who performs sonograms. Carew visited Ralf’s office the same day as the sonogram expert, enabling the Reulands to hear Konrad’s heart and see it pumping, too. Mary has a video of it on her phone; she shows it off as proudly as pictures of her first grandchild, a girl named Nora who arrived a few months too late to be held by her Uncle Konrad.
Everywhere Carew goes, he taps his chest and says, “Konrad is with me.” In cardiac rehab and at doctor’s appointments, like the eight-month checkup he sailed through last week, he talks about staying strong as part of paying his debt to Konrad – and as part of his thank-you to Mary and Ralf.
The best way Carew expresses his gratitude is by continuing to share this story.
The more it’s told, the more people will think about improving their heart health, becoming an organ donor and learning to recognize the signs of a brain aneurysm.
HBO and ESPN recently aired moving versions. Fox Sports offered its version on Saturday (including a clip of the sonogram). The NFL Network will deliver another Oct. 26, before a game featuring the Baltimore Ravens, the team Konrad played for in 2014 and ’15, his final two seasons.
This baseball game in Minnesota offered several more opportunities to spread the word, starting with an afternoon news conference.
When Twins leaders picked the date for Donor Day, they based it in part on the availability of the Carews and Reulands. They also tied in a promotion: a Rod Carew bobblehead.
One side of the bobblehead’s box features the Heart of 29 logo, a brief writeup of he and Konrad’s story and information about the American Heart Association and LifeSource, the local outlet of the nationwide Donate Life network.
“God bless your family,” Twins president Dave St. Peter said to Mary and Ralf upon meeting them. “Rod is a significant part of our family. Now you are a significant part of our family.”
The news conference lasted nearly an hour, the video carried live on Facebook. As of mid-day Monday, it had been viewed more than 50,000 times, drawing nearly 1,000 reactions and around 100 comments, such as, “Thank you for the gift of life,” with a sparkling heart emoji.
One keen observer noticed what happened when emotions began to well inside Mary: “Watched with tears as the 2 ladies held hands talking about Rod n (K)onrad.”
The news conference ended with Mary and Ralf each receiving a Twins jersey. Both had Reuland across the back, but the numbers differed: 29 in honor of Rod, 86 in memory of Konrad, as that’s what he wore with the Ravens.
“We are one big family,” Rhonda said. “The Careulands.”
As game time approached, several groups of organ donors and recipients were honored on the field.
The Reulands, meanwhile, stood in front of the Twins’ dugout, greeting players and coaches who were eager to meet them.
“God does awesome things,” said second baseman Brian Dozier, one of the players closest to Carew.
When the videoboard above left field began showing the story of Rod and Konrad, Mary’s eyes reddened and Ralf wrapped an arm around her. Then a Twins staffer motioned for “the Careulands” to walk out to the mound. Fans stood and the applause grew as the foursome reached the center of the diamond.
Wearing No. 29, Mary had the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Although she’s a lifelong athlete, she hadn’t warmed up and couldn’t remember the last time she threw a baseball. So her one-hopper was understandable.
Leaving the field, she said she regretted not having thrown a strike. Rod patted her on the back and said, “You did just fine.”
Konrad wasn’t as famous in football as Rod was in baseball, but he had such a larger-than-life presence that everyone he touched remembers him fondly.
In a few weeks, his high school will unveil a memorial plaque at the football stadium. A few weeks later, the sports facility at the middle school where Konrad and Rod first crossed paths will be named for Konrad. And in October, the University of Michigan will make Mary and Ralf honorary captains for a football game. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh coached Konrad at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, and he wants his new fans to know about Konrad.
Then there’s the saga of Kimi, the 10-year-old niece of Ralf and Mary’s close friends who Konrad used to drive more than an hour each way to visit each week as she endured chemotherapy. Since his death, doctors have declared her cancer-free for the first time in nine years.
“That’s my bad-ass angel,” Mary said, smiling. “Not to say that his life didn’t have meaning when he was here, because he was an amazing person. But what’s happened since gives him a lasting meaning. Everything that comes from this story is part of his legacy.”
During the game, Rod and Mary spent an inning in the Twins’ radio booth, and another inning in the TV booth, continuing to spread their message.
Back in their suite, the banter continued over the railing into the next suite, with the other transplant celebrants. By night’s end, Rhonda was wearing a caregiver pin courtesy of Joel Heckert, a director of Second Chance for Life Foundation. Heckert also invited the Carews to their weekly support group meeting whenever they’re in town.
When Rod visited with them, he compared scars with Mandy Bradley and talked baseball with lifelong Twins fan Ken McIntosh. He shared personal moments with each of the survivors and many of their caregivers, taking pictures with all who asked.
They also posed for a group photo featuring only those with a new heart.
Counting Carew, there were nine, the perfect number to fill out a baseball lineup.