Each time AJ Reyes’ cell phone rang in the fall of 2010, it sent a wave of hope through his body.
Five years earlier, Reyes had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Now, at just 25, doctors gave him only a few more years to live unless he received a new organ, but he’d have to wait for their call.
Doctors needed to find the right heart – young and large enough to fill the oversized cavity in Reyes’ chest that had been created by his enlarged and damaged heart.
Finally, one evening in November, the call came.
“The doctor said, ‘We have a heart for you, do you want it?’” Reyes recalled. “I said, ‘Of course I do!’ But then it settles in, and it’s hard to be happy for yourself. You realize someone has just died. Or is dying. And their family is grieving while I’m getting my second chance in life.”
Since his heart transplant, Reyes has made the most of that second chance and will graduate from SMU’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program on May 26 at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.
The accomplishment will be sweeter, Reyes said, because he’ll share the moment with his organ donor’s mother, Mary Knauer of Willows, California.
“Seeing what AJ has done with his life since he received my son’s heart has made this a little bit better, if that’s possible,” Knauer said. “It’s so fulfilling to meet such a nice young man in AJ and know he’s someone my son would have liked.”
The path that brought Reyes and Knauer together was paved with misfortune, but one that led to healing for both of them.
Reyes was taking pre-nursing courses at Sacramento State University when he became ill. What began as an ordinary virus turned into a serious infection that attacked his heart.
At first, medical treatment and frequent hospital visits seemed to control it.
But then, shortly after returning to his studies, his heart gave out and he went into shock. Reyes was rushed to Stanford Hospital, where he was told the news that floored him: His heart was in complete failure, and he’d need a new organ to survive.
“Hearing that at such a young age was devastating,” Reyes said. “I hadn’t even started to live, and yet I was already being told to get ready to die.”
Meanwhile, Knauer’s family was enjoying small-town life in rural Willows. Motorcycles were one of her family’s shared passions, and when the children were younger they took rides together through the winding hills of Northern California, often camping along the way.
Her son, Justin, was an accomplished rider who raced motorcycles and took extensive road trips across the West. He also loved fishing and hunting with his 7-year-old son.
On Nov. 17, 2010, Justin was riding home, passing through an intersection just outside of town he’d ridden through a million times, Knauer said. He wasn’t going fast and he was wearing a helmet. But a pick-up truck driver pulled out from a side road in front of Justin, sending him head-first through the driver’s side window.
At the hospital, Knauer was told her 40-year-old son wasn’t going to live.
And, adding to her shock, she learned that Justin was a registered organ donor.
“He never told me this is something he’d wanted,” Knauer said, “so in the moment it’s very hard to understand, as a parent, what’s going on and what this procedure would mean.”
Knauer said it was a difficult decision, but she felt compelled to follow her son’s wishes.
The following day, Reyes met his transplant team at Stanford Hospital.
In the fog of his recovery, Reyes said what he recalls most is the sound of the large heart pounding from his chest.
“I’d forgotten about the sound of a healthy heart,” he said. “It felt so strong.”
Reyes bonded with the nurses who took care of him, further cementing his desire to become a healthcare provider. He promised himself that once he regained his energy, he would enroll in nursing school.
“You realize how important the role of the nurse is,” Reyes said. “I know what it was like to have good nurses, and bad ones, and how a good nurse advocates for you and treats you with compassion.”
In 2013, three years after the transplant, Knauer and Reyes got a chance to meet in person.
Knauer had written a letter to Donor Network West, a California nonprofit that pairs recipients with donor families, and asked to meet the four people who received Justin’s organs. A man in Fresno had received his pancreas and one kidney while Justin’s liver and other kidney went to two other recipients.
But only Reyes responded to Knauer’s letter immediately.
“I was eager to meet her,” Reyes said. “Her son’s generosity gave me my life back.”
The two met at a hotel in Santa Clara, both surrounded by their families. Reyes’ mother, who is also a nurse, brought along a double-stemmed stethoscope that both mothers used to listen to the heart beating inside Reye’s chest.
“To hear my son’s heart made all the difference to me,” Knauer said. “It’s something from him that still lives on. A small part of him is still here.”
Reyes thanked Knauer and shared his goal to go to nursing school.
“I told Mary we were going to do big things together,” Reyes said. “I told her I’m going to make this heart proud.”
The two began a correspondence and then a friendship. Reyes and his family drove from Vallejo to Willows each year to spend the anniversary of Justin’s death with Knauer.
Knauer kept Reyes updated on her life, mostly through Facebook, and sent him pictures of her son.
At his graduation on May 26, Reyes and Knauer will meet again.
“It’s meant a lot to me to connect with Mary on such a deep level,” Reyes said. “This heart allows me to feel a connection to her and her entire family. And now that I have this second chance, I get to do something great with it. I get to pay it forward with my patients and pay it back to the nursing profession.”