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“Your Son is Not Forgotten”: Meeting My Heart Donor’s Father

June 17 is the four-year anniversary of Help Hope Live ambassador Bill Soloway’s life-saving heart transplant. In honor of Father’s Day, Bill told us the incredible story of how he, his father, and his heart donor’s father forged an enduring connection over the gift of life.

I often wonder what percentage of transplant recipients get the chance to meet or communicate with their donor families. After I received the gift of life, I knew that I wanted to reach out and thank my donor James’ family personally—and, hopefully, thank them in person.

The journey started when I wrote my first letter to my donor’s mother and father, Charlotte and Jim.

Both of my donor’s parents responded to my initial letter. Jim’s response was short and sweet, expressing his appreciation for my letter, and he continued to correspond with me after our initial contact. Charlotte sent a 3-page handwritten letter all about her son, but I didn’t hear from her again after our initial exchange. Despite this, I felt it was important to keep sending updates to both parents about everything that I was able to do thanks to their son’s selfless act.

I also knew I wanted to meet them in person—and I finally got the chance the weekend before Thanksgiving 2018.

My father and I invited Jim to the Gift of Life Donor Program’s Life and Legacy Celebration in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. For my dad, the meeting came down to two words: “thank you.” He lost his oldest son to heart issues at 27, then lost his wife to congestive heart failure—and then I was diagnosed. James’s heart saved my life.

The night before the Celebration, I presented the first medal that I won at the Transplant Games of America to Jim and presented a second medal to my father. It was a very emotional moment—presenting the medal to my donor’s father was a way for me to acknowledge that I would not be able to do any of this without his son.

He was deeply appreciative of the gesture and our meeting. He thanked me for all I have done to honor his son through my efforts to raise organ donation awareness and celebrate donors.

We remained in touch after that, and our communication became more personal than ever—instead of skimming the surface, we were diving deep. I kept writing to my donor’s mother.

I called Jim to let him know I would be coming to the Pittsburgh area. He invited me to stay at his home—the house where my donor lived following his military service. I was honored to accept the invitation.

When I arrived, waiting for me was Jim and, to my pleasant surprise, Charlotte along with several members of their family, some of whom took off work for the day just to be there and meet me. They brought me a cake with a deeply special message: “Life is a Beautiful Ride” with a high-wheeler bike on it, reflecting the theme of 2019 Donate Life Month and my personal passion for cycling.

It was my first face-to-face meeting with my donor’s mother. After a big hug, Charlotte said, “I know you have been writing. I have read every letter, more than once, and shared them with my family. It’s hard to explain why I couldn’t write back.”

In today’s world, with texting, email, and social media, communication can feel very impersonal. To stand in front of someone, and to see their facial expressions and body language…for me, meeting Charlotte in person filled in all the missing pieces.

I had brought something special with me: an Enso that pulsed for two minutes to reflect my donor’s heart beating in my chest. I gave it to Charlotte. She folded her fingers over it. I played the heartbeat and said, “This is your son’s heartbeat. It now lives on in me.”

Two years after my mother passed away, I wrestled with how best to break the news to my father that I was being evaluated for a heart transplant. I decided to plan a spring training trip to Clearwater, Florida with my dad—a place with special significance for my mother and where my parents had spent their honeymoon.

Me and my dad spent that time retracing some of my mother’s favorite locations and attractions. Back at the hotel, I broke the news to him about my heart transplant need. All the while, I thought, “This may be our last trip to Florida together.”

After my heart transplant, I knew another Florida trip just might be in our future. Despite medical setbacks—including my father’s stroke in January of this year—we had our sights set on a Florida father-son adventure, incorporating both Disney and seeing the Phillies in action at spring training.

In April, we made the trip.

I found myself in the outfield, my father beside my in a wheelchair, both of us sporting fresh Bryce Harper jerseys. I couldn’t believe how far we had come in four years—here we were, side by side in Florida, me sharing a moment with my father that I thought I would never have again. My father lost two family members to heart disease. Now, as he neared 90, his son had a chance to outlive him.

A lot of transplant recipients say, this is the moment that I never thought I would see before I got received the gift of life. That was my moment.

That’s when I knew I wanted to take my donor’s father to a ball game.

When I got back from spring training, I reached out to the Pittsburg Pirates and told them my plans. They immediately invited me and my donor’s father to join them on the field for batting practice before the game.

Jim was ecstatic—the smile on his face in the photos tells the whole story. But I had another surprise in store for my donor’s dad.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, I pointed to the scoreboard:

“Thank you to my organ donor, James E. Zimmerman, Jr.”

Jim broke down in tears. When I sent him all the photographs of our day together, including meeting Pirates management and players, I asked him what his favorite picture was. He said, the picture of the scoreboard with my son’s name on it.

The morning after the game, I met Jim and Charlotte and together, we visited the cemetery where their son was buried. Charlotte said, “Bill, I haven’t been able to get a good night’s sleep since Jimmy died. Last night, my husband told me that I was snoring and slept peacefully throughout the night. Thank you.”

The three of us stood graveside, Jim on one side, me and Charlotte on the other. Charlotte said what I was thinking: “How is it that we’re standing at the grave of my son, yet his heart is standing right here next to us?” It was an immensely significant moment for all of us.

As we parted ways, Charlotte gave me her phone number and told me to call her anytime. When I first called, I said, “Charlotte, this is Bill Soloway. You know…Jimmy’s heart!

The experience of meeting my donor’s family and understanding the experiences and emotions of two fathers—one who lost a son, one whose son was saved—represents the full-circle impact of transplantation. I now feel like I am a part of the lives of my donor’s family members.

Whenever I get the chance to show my donor’s father photos and organ donation advocacy work, he soaks it up like a sponge. A part of his son is in the same room as him—literally living on. That fact is moving and astonishing to all of us.

I do what I do to honor my donor, James. Without his heart, there would be no “Bill Soloway story” to share with the world.

I can tell my donor’s father, with confidence, that his son is not forgotten.

Written by Emily Progin