PEORIA — Last September, the heartbeat of 2-year-old Cazmirr Landers slipped away.
Last month, his mother heard it thrum again.
Brooke Eaton of Pekin, who lost her young son to a drowning accident less than a year ago, listened raptly as his heart beat inside the chest of a 16-month-old Minnesota girl. A stethoscope stretching from the mom’s ears to the chest of the toddler, Eaton followed each thump with wide-eyed wonder.
“I could hear it crystal clear — every heartbeat,” says Eaton, 36. “It was the most beautiful sound in the world.”
In late July, Eaton and her daughter, Cierra, 4, motored 460 miles to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. They came to meet the lass saved by Cazmirr’s transplanted heart, Lola Bond, along with Lola’s maternal grandparents, Jeffrey and Margaret Vorel.
“It was wonderful to be able to thank the family who saved our little girl,” says Margaret Vorel, 48. “Lola wouldn’t be here without a new heart.”
Lola was born with multiple medical challenges, including pediatric cardiomyopathy. The rare condition often involves a weakened heart muscle that eventually can fail to pump blood. In Lola’s case, the hospital’s machines could keep her alive for about three years, her grandmother says. But by last August, she had been put on an urgent list for the only permanent solution: a heart transplant.
Lola’s family (the maternal grandparents share custody of the girl with her mother) could only wait, knowing their hopes depending on another family’s grief.
Meantime in Pekin, life went on as usual — hectic and happy — for Brooke Eaton, a single mother and professional welder. Offspring Cazmirr and Cierra — the boy was born just 16 months after his sister — were a playful duo, often riding together on the same tricycle. With their mom, the kids would often visit parks, where Cazmirr — known by two nicknames, “Cash” and “Bubby” — wouldn’t hesitate to approach and befriend other children.
“He never met a stranger,” his mom says. “He was always doing something.”
At home, he’d constantly and enthusiastically mimic his mother as she’d cook, exercise or otherwise make a move. But he was always eager to burst back outside.
“He was full of life,” his mother says with a wide smile. “He wanted to travel the world. On his tricycle. In a day.”
Last August, while visiting his paternal grandparents in East Peoria, he fell into a swimming pool. A relative found him lifeless in the water, but gave CPR until paramedics arrived. With no pulse or breath, he was rushed to OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria and admitted into the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
There, he was kept alive on machines. But after a few days, doctors gave Eaton a hopeless prognosis.
“There was nothing more they could do,” she says.
Meantime, she was approached by Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network, a nonprofit that coordinates organ and tissue donation. The group explained that Cazmirr would give life to children in need of transplants, an opportunity that suddenly bolstered the crestfallen Eaton.
“I agreed that it would be a wonderful gift to give,” Eaton says.
So, six days after the drowning, the boy was taken off life support, and his heart stopped.
But not for long.
The heart was rushed to the Minneapolis hospital, where little Lola was prepped for transplant surgery. Her grandmother says the surgery came just in time.
“She was really fighting,” her grandmother says.
The operation went successfully. Lola has remained at the hospital — in part for other issues, but mostly to adjust to the new heart. It was big for her body, but she is growing into it.
“We anticipate that in the future she will be a normal child,” her grandmother says. “The heart is doing great.”
Meantime, as Lola made progress last fall, her grandmother kept thinking about the donor family. In fact, not long after the transplant, she’d written the family a lengthy letter of thanks.
“I would like to begin by offering my condolences and thanking you for this precious gift,” the letter started. “I have cried many tears over your loss and thank you daily for your decision as my beautiful granddaughter Lola would not be here without that decision.”
By Gift of Hope rules, either party — recipient or donor — can send letters to the other, with the organization acting as middleman and maintaining anonymity. Only about 10% of participants contact the other in writing.
But if either party wants to meet the other, Gift of Hope will secure permission from both, then help them get together. Less than 2% of transplants result in such a meet-up.
That small group would include the families of Cazmirr and Lola. But not for a while.
Even after writing the thank-you letter, Lola’s grandmother had held on to it for three months, so as not to intrude during a difficult time.
“I wanted to let the family grieve,” she says.
Finally, in January, she popped the letter into the mail. When it arrived in Pekin, Eaton was overjoyed.
“That was a gift,” she says. “It was an honor that they’d send a thank-you letter.”
After corresponding with Lola’s grandmother and coordinating plans with Gift of Hope and the Minneapolis hospital, Eaton scheduled a road trip for late July. She told Cierra, who got excited about the venture.
“I just explained that we were going to hear Bubby’s heart,” Eaton says.
At the hospital, Lola took a quick liking to Eaton, hugging and snuggling with her as soon as they met. A bit later, the room fell to a hush as Eaton hooked a stethoscope between her ears and Lola’s chest.
“It was very exciting,” Eaton says. “I was glad to hear his heart. And I know my son is happy now. He is in a good place. He is watching over us.”
Eaton was able to take the heartbeat with her, via a recording provided by Lola’s grandmother. The two plan to stay in contact, especially regarding Lola.
“I’ll always wonder what she’s doing with my boy’s heart,” Eaton says.
Lola’s grandmother has kept a copy of the thank-you letter, as a keepsake for the girl.
“It’s for when she’s older, so she can understand,” her grandmother says.
Meantime, Lola isn’t the only child to benefit from Cazmirr’s gift of life: three others have received his organs. His mother has not tried to contact those families yet. But she has no doubt regarding his dreams to see the world.
“His life will live on through other kids,” his mother says. “And he will see the world through them.”
Information about the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network can be found at giftofhope.org/
Phil Luciano: 309-686-3155; email@example.com, @LucianoPhil