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The Gift of a Donated Heart

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Heart of an Athlete

In 2016, Major League Baseball’s Hall of Famer Rod Carew was in poor health. He was 71 years old and his heart and kidneys were failing. At the same time, National Football League player Konrad Reuland was having health issues of his own. Fate brought the two men together in Orange County, California, operating rooms.

Konrad Reuland’s Football Career

Born in Ohio in 1987, Konrad Reuland always wanted to be a professional athlete. Growing up, his idol was Rod Carew, one of Major League Baseball’s all-time greatest hitters. So, it was a great day in the life of an 11-year-old Reuland when Carew visited his school and he got to meet the man he looked up to so much.

After a successful college football career, young Reuland had another fantastic day in 2011 when he was drafted to play for the San Francisco 49ers. At six feet five inches tall and weighing 260 pounds, he had the perfect physique to play tight end.

Konrad Reuland.

Konrad Reuland.

However, his life in the big leagues sputtered. The 49ers kept him on its practice squad until he was traded to the New York Jets for the 2012 season. He played a few games for the Jets, but American football is a violent collision sport, and soon Reuland was on the sidelines with a knee injury.

What followed was four frustrating years of being on and off practice squads with a couple of other teams. He didn’t give up his dream of playing professional football, and he worked tirelessly to recover from his injury.

In late November 2016, he was working out when he suffered a searing pain behind his left eye. Paramedics were called.

The Life of Rod Carew

Born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1945, Rod Carew was one of the best second basemen of all time. He played from 1967 to 1985, first with the Minnesota Twins and then with the California Angels.

He was showered with awards and trophies and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, his first year of eligibility. He had a storied career, and throughout his run in the Major Leagues, he wore the number 29 on his uniform.

In September 2015, Carew was playing golf when he suffered a heart attack. What followed was open-heart surgery and six weeks in hospital. He received a left ventricular assist device, which is described as a bridge to transplantation; it keeps the patient alive until a suitable heart is available to replace the failing one.

In January 2016, Rod Carew and his wife Rhonda joined with the Minnesota Twins organization to create “The Heart of 29.” The aim was to raise funds for the American Heart Association to build awareness of cardio-vascular disease.

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The Importance of Donor Cards

Konrad Reuland was rushed to the UCLA Medical Center where it was quickly diagnosed that he had an aneurysm. From his hospital bed, he texted his mother, Mary, a physician. He wrote “I’m about to kick this thing’s butt, with the help of God. He had something big in store for me.” Moments later, the aneurysm burst.

An aneurysm is the swelling of the wall of a blood vessel.

An aneurysm is the swelling of the wall of a blood vessel.

In mid-December 2017, he was declared brain dead and put on life support.

Reuland had signed his consent to be an organ donor on his driver’s license, so the calls went out to people on the waiting list. One of the calls went to Rod Carew who was on his way home from a doctor’s appointment and only a few miles away from the hospital.

Six weeks later, the baseball legend left hospital with a football player’s heart beating in his chest. As a bonus, Carew also got one of Reuland’s kidneys.

The man who wore number 29 throughout his career was given a life extension by another man who died at the age of 29.

Later, Carew told radio station WBUR in Boston, “So now we’re one, we’re brothers and we’re going to do great work by spreading the word about donors and getting more people to listen to us. And hopefully they do.”

Giving and Receiving

Mary Reuland was keen to know who had received her son’s heart. Her family and the Carews were distant acquaintances. Mary suspected that Rod Carew was the recipient Konrad's gift as his heart transplant had been reported in the news.

However, the protocols dictated that a year had to pass before any identifying information could be shared and most of the time donor and recipient families don’t find out.

The Carews were also curious about who saved Rod’s life. Friends of both families had already connected the dots and Mary was prompted to call Rhonda Carew. Timing, blood types, and the little bit of information they had received from the hospitals convinced the two women they had worked out who gave and who received.

The American Heart Association reports that on March 2 [2018], “the Carews visited the Reuland’s home for a tear-filled reunion. It included the magic moment of Mary and her husband Ralf listening to Konrad’s heart in Rod’s chest.”

Bonus Factoids

  • At the time of writing, August 2022, Konrad Reuland’s heart is still beating strongly for Rod Carew.
  • A single person donating their organs can save the lives of eight people. A further 75 people can receive parts such as tendons, corneas, skin, and bones that will have a huge impact on their lives.
  • At any given time, about 120,000 people in the United States are on organ donation waiting lists.

About 95 percent of Americans support the idea of organ transplants, but only 54 percent are registered as donors. Some jurisdictions have enacted rules that presume consent to organ donations is given instead of having people opting into the program. So, without definitive evidence of a refusal to donate, organs are presumed to be available for harvesting.

Organ Donation


© 2020 Rupert Taylor

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