Former NFL player’s heart saves life of baseball legend

It’s believed this is the first time a heart has gone from one pro athlete to another.

BY MIKE DIGIOVANNA
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

LOS ANGELES – Mary Reuland leaned over the hospital bed and nestled her head on the chest of Konrad Reuland, the oldest of her three football-playing boys, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound NFL tight end who had been in a coma for almost two weeks.

Former major league batting champion Rod Carew stands near a replica of a statue from his days as a Minnesota Twin, at home in Coto de Caza, Calif., on April 10. Carew is still recovering from a heart and kidney transplant from last December.

It was the morning of Dec. 12, in the intensive care unit of the UCLA Medical Center, just hours before doctors declared her 29-year-old son brain-dead from an aneurysm that ruptured behind his left eye on Nov. 30.

“Something in me, I don’t know why, but maybe it’s a mother’s instinct. … I just laid my right ear on his chest and listened to his heart beating all day, from morning until we had to leave,” Mary said. “I memorized it. And I said, ‘I hope I get to hear this again one day.’ ”

The stethoscope
Less than three months later, Mary stood arm-in-arm with her husband, Ralf, and youngest son, 24-year-old Austin, in the backyard of their San Juan Capistrano home, eagerly awaiting the first meeting with the man who received Konrad’s heart and a kidney in a 13-hour operation on Dec. 16.

From a walkway on the side of the house on that sunny Thursday afternoon emerged Rod Carew, the 71-year-old Hall-of Fame baseball player, holding the hand of his wife, Rhonda, as he ambled toward the Reulands.

The 18-time All-Star, 1977 American League most valuable player and seven-time batting champion was joined by two of his children, Cheyenne, 29, and Devon, 27.

Carew, who survived a massive heart attack in 2015, hugged the Reulands. After some small talk, they moved inside, where Rod, sitting on the family room sectional, handed Mary a stethoscope belonging to Ralf Reuland, a doctor.

Konrad’s heart
Mary placed the device on Carew’s chest and listened for about 15 seconds. Her eyes reddened as her head sank into Carew’s shoulder.

Top: In a 2004 file image, Konrad Reuland is shown at Mission Viejo High School, where he became the top tight end prospect in California after switching from basketball. (GLENN KOENIG/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS)
Bottom:  Rod Carew and his wife, Rhonda, talk on April 10 about his recovery and his life after a heart and kidney transplant in December. (MARK BOSTER/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS)

“It was comforting in a way to hear that again, knowing that part of Konrad is still here,” Mary said. “I didn’t know until this happened that every heartbeat, like a fingerprint, is unique. It was definitely Konrad’s heart in there.”

Next was Ralf, who listened to the heart for about 20 seconds before pulling Carew’s face toward his in a warm embrace.

“It was strange to have his heart back in this home, beating in somebody else’s chest,” Ralf said.

“You just can’t explain the feeling.”

A second chance
Austin leaned into Carew and seemed surprised by the strength and volume of the sound in the stethoscope.

“Wow,” he said. “Hearing that roaring heartbeat of his … I don’t know, it was surreal.”

No word better describes the last four months for the Carews and Reulands, one family mourning the loss of a son and brother, the other buoyed by a second chance at life, the two now inextricably linked by Konrad’s heart and a shared desire to promote organ donation, heart and vascular health.

As the mystery surrounding the identities of donor and recipient cleared in January, one coincidence after another led the families to believe they were destined to meet.

Carew wore No. 29 throughout his 19-year career with the Minnesota Twins and Angels, and his heart attack inspired an American Heart Association “Heart of 29” campaign to increase awareness about heart disease.

All Carew knew of his donor at the time of the transplant was that he was a 29-year-old man.

A first
Konrad and his brother, Warren, now 28, and Cheyenne and Devon Carew were middle-school classmates at St. John’s Episcopal School in Rancho Santa Margarita.

About 15 years ago, a teenage Konrad met Rod Carew at a middle-school basketball game — Warren and Devon were teammates — and spent the rest of the day bragging to his family that he met the Hall of Famer.

According to an official with OneLegacy, the Los Angeles-area chapter of the nationwide organ donor procurement network, this is the first time they’ve heard of anonymously matched organs between families that knew each other. It’s believed to be the first time a heart has gone from one pro athlete to another.

Carew knows the Reulands’ pain. His youngest daughter from his first marriage, Michelle, died in 1996 after a nine-month battle against leukemia. She was 18.

The shy and somewhat reclusive Carew, then the Angels hitting coach, became the face of a campaign to boost the National Marrow Donor Program registry. He has hosted an annual golf tournament to benefit pediatric cancer research in Michelle’s honor for 21 years.

The heart attack
Rod Carew hit his tee shot on the first hole at Corona’s Cresta Verde Golf Course down the middle of the fairway when his chest began to burn and his hands grew clammy. He drove his cart to the clubhouse, crumpled to the floor and asked a woman to call paramedics.

Carew’s heart stopped beating. Twice. When Carew awoke in the emergency room of Riverside Community Hospital, he was told he suffered a heart attack known as “the widow maker,” because few patients survive the ride to the hospital.

It began a 15-month ordeal in which Carew spent 160 days in eight hospitals and had two major surgeries before the transplant.

The aneurysm
On Nov. 26, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Konrad was lifting weights in the gym at his Irvine apartment complex.

“He felt a click in his head,” said Ralf Reuland, 56. “After a couple minutes on the treadmill, he had the worst headache he’s ever had, right behind his left eye. He called, and I told him to get to the emergency room.”

By the time Ralf and Mary got to Mission Hospital, the aneurysm was diagnosed. Konrad was transported to UCLA Medical Center the next day. On Nov. 30, the aneurysm burst, prompting a 17-hour brain surgery.

Konrad never regained consciousness.

2016 organ donor
With the television tuned to a Dec. 12 “Monday Night Football” game between the Ravens and New England, Konrad was declared brain-dead. He remained on a ventilator so his organs could be harvested.

Konrad had made the decision, with input from Mary, to become an organ donor only in April 2016, when he renewed his driver’s license.

“I told the doctors that whoever gets his heart better deserve it because it’s a good one,” Mary said.

“And it’s a big one.”

It is recommended that donor families wait at least a year before contacting a recipient to allow the donor family time to process their grief and the recipient time to move past the greatest risk of organ rejection.

But when Mary Reuland did a Google search of Carew a few days after the funeral and saw Rod received a heart from a 29-year-old in Los Angeles, “I almost fell over,” she said. “I started hearing from so many people, ‘Is it Rod Carew?’ Then, I couldn’t let it go. It was like something that festers.

I needed to know.”

The match
Rhonda Carew also did a Google search of Konrad when she got to the hospital. When she learned Konrad died on Dec. 12, she thought there was “no way” Rod could have gotten Konrad’s heart on Dec. 16, “because the heart is the organ with the smallest window to get transplanted.”

She did not know at the time that Konrad’s organs were kept alive for four days.

Further investigation revealed that Carew, whose blood type is B-positive, received organs from an O-negative donor. Konrad was O-negative. A Hepatitis B immunity in both donor and recipient solidified the match.

“I thought, ‘Uh-oh, they may be right,’ ” Rhonda Carew, 58, said. “But the final confirmation had to come from OneLegacy.”

Confirmation
Mary Reuland made the call to the organ donation company in mid-January.

“I said, ‘Listen, this train has left the station, it’s really hard for me, but we need to know, was it Rod Carew who got my son’s heart and kidney?’ ” Mary said. “She was like, ‘We’ve never heard of anyone calling with the name (of a recipient).’ She paused for the longest time and said, ‘Yes, it is.’”

The American Heart Association arranged the March 2 meeting of the families, which will be featured on “CBS Sunday Morning.” The Reulands hope it was the first of many gatherings.

“I told them when they came here, and I strongly believe this, that they are now a part of our family,” Mary Reuland said. “My son’s heart is beating in your chest. You are a part of our family, and you will be invited to family functions whether you want to come or not.”

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