Heart transplant recipient celebrates graduation with donor’s mom
Appeared in: Easy Bay Times
By: Tammerlin Drummond
Published on: 05/27/17
At 25, AJ Reyes was suffering from congestive heart failure and running out of time. Unless the Vallejo resident got another organ to replace his damaged one, his doctors told him he would be dead within five years.
Reyes went on the Donor Network West waiting list and in November of 2010, he got the call that he had been praying for. A strong, healthy heart had become available. But his joy was clouded by the knowledge that the news meant another family’s nightmare. Justin Olivera, a 40-year-old man from Willows, a small rural town in Northern California, had just been killed in a motorcycle accident. Olivera was an organ donor, and his heart gave Reyes a second chance.
On Friday, Reyes, now 32, graduated from Samuel Merritt University’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science Nursing program at the Paramount Theatre. The moment was all the more special because Olivera’s mother, Mary Knauer, whose son’s generous gift made Reyes’ dreams possible, made the 2½-hour drive with her daughter, Julie Olivera, to celebrate the occasion with Reyes’ mother, Tessa, and their extended family.
“I’ve always told her I intended to do amazing things with this second chance, so I’m very glad to be able to share this experience with her,” Reyes said.
It was a difficult and emotional day for Knauer, who said that Reyes has become like a nephew to her.
“I will always have a hole in my heart,” she said, “but to see my son’s heart walk down the graduation aisle, I’m just really happy for AJ and what’s he’s been able to accomplish.”
She brought him a graduation gift that included a pen and Bible verses. She wrapped it in a pouch that read, “Life is not about finding yourself but about creating yourself.”
Tragedy brought Knauer and Reyes together.
On Nov. 17, 2010, Olivera, who had a passion for motorcycles, was riding home through an intersection he’d traveled many times before when a pickup pulled out from a side road and struck him, sending him headfirst through the driver’s window.
At the hospital, Knauer was given the news that Olivera, who had a 7-year-old son, was not going to make it. She also learned with shock that he was an organ donor and, though it was difficult, she followed his wishes. Reyes got his heart. A man in Fresno received Olivera’s pancreas and a kidney. Meanwhile, two different recipients received Olivera’s liver and second kidney.
Knauer wanted to learn more about each person. So she wrote to the Donor Network West, a nonprofit that connects recipients with donor families. She sent each recipient a letter with pictures of her son, sharing some details about his life. She told them she would be happy to hear from them. It is up to the recipient to decide whether he or she wants contact.
Reyes was in the middle of writing a letter to Knauer when he received hers. It gave him goose bumps.
“You can’t say thank you to the donor, because he’s not around,” he said. “But you want to show some gratitude, and I felt like I needed an outlet to say, ‘Thank you.'”
The two began emailing and corresponding on Facebook, and in 2013, their families met for the first time in a Santa Clara hotel room before an annual 5K run California Transplant Donor Network fundraiser. Reyes ran in Olivera’s honor and gave Knauer one of his medals.
Over the years, the transplant recipient, the donor’s mom and their respective families have forged a bond that has helped them both to heal.
Every year, Reyes, who is Filipino, and his family celebrate All Soul’s Day, a Catholic holiday on Nov. 2 where people gather to remember their deceased loved ones. They visit Knauer and her family in Willows and go with them to visit the cemetery where Olivera is buried.
“It’s also around the time that he passed away,” Reyes said, “so we thought it might be fitting to meet around the time of his death anniversary, pay our respects, and celebrate life and family.”
Afterward, the families gather at Knauer’s home.
“It’s wonderful, his mom and dad, sisters, cousins, they bring a ton of food, and then we come back to my house and eat,” Knauer said. “We have a persimmon tree, and they just love to come and pick the persimmons.”
Reyes plans to take a short vacation to rest after his grueling studies. Then he’ll start looking for a job. He’s thinking about becoming a transplant coordinator.
“I’d like to work with people who helped me get back to where I am now,” he said.
Knauer, meanwhile, has been in touch with another recipient of her son’s organs. She still hopes that one day, the other two might answer her letters.