TAMPA, Fla. – March 9 was the first anniversary of his daughter’s death, and Ronald Pierce was anxious.
He was finally going to meet Garrett Leopold, the skinny, dark-haired 17-year-old who lived in Mulberry, Fla. Pierce had reached out by text, but the two had never met face to face. Pierce wasn’t sure what he would say or how he should act. He had sent the teen a text weeks earlier: “You are part of our family now.”
They met that afternoon at Kate Jackson Park in Tampa. Pierce brought photo albums with him.
The pictures chronicled the life of his daughter, Amanda, who was 18 when she died in a crash as she was driving to Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., to see her sister. Pretty and smart, Amanda had hoped to attend FSU herself.
Leopold brought something of his own – a stethoscope.
In case they wanted to listen to her heart.
Amanda was a popular senior at Plant High School in Tampa, where she was involved in the school’s chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that pairs students with special-needs children. She also worked with children at after-school programs with the YMCA and St. John’s Episcopal School.
She wanted to study special education and was planning to begin her college career at Tallahassee Community College and then transfer to Florida State University.
“That was her passion – working with kids,” said Pierce, who set up a college scholarship in her name at Plant High for a student pursuing a degree in special education.
On March 8, 2013, Amanda was driving to Tallahassee when she swerved to avoid traffic backed up because of two previous accidents on the interstate. Her car struck a tree. A friend who was with her was injured, but survived the crash.
Garrett’s problems began in the womb.
His heart wasn’t fully developed when he was born. Doctors didn’t know if he would survive. He had his first heart transplant at 3 months old.
Over time, more problems developed. He suffered from coronary artery disease; doctors told him he would have to have another heart transplant.
In September 2012, he was admitted to UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital in Gainesville, Fla. For six months, he waited for a heart.
By March, his condition had worsened. The night of Amanda’s car crash, his heartbeat was erratic, skipping way too many beats.
A friend had told Garrett that he would get a heart on March 10. The friend was off by a day.
On March 11, doctors put Amanda’s heart in Garrett’s body.
One teenager had died. Another would live.
Garrett never liked chocolate milk. But after the surgery, he asked his mother for the flavored milk and drank five small cartons. He later found out Amanda loved chocolate milk.
It was one of the first of the innumerable times since the transplant he thought about the girl whose heart was keeping him alive.
“I’m honored to be able to receive her heart and humbled in so many ways,” Garrett said.
He also felt guilty. Guilty that he was alive because someone had died. Guilty because he received a donated organ but so many of his fellow patients had not.
“Why am I the one who got the transplant? Why not them?”
Not long after the transplant, Amanda’s sister, Jessica, reached out to Garrett through his older sister. She wanted to know how he was doing – and how her sister’s heart was doing. She knew transplants sometimes didn’t take, that the recipient’s body would reject an organ from someone else.
Garrett wasn’t ready to meet. He was weak physically and, emotionally, he hadn’t processed everything.
“You don’t want to reach out too soon when it’s too early,” Garrett said. “You don’t want to embrace something too soon.”
The families agreed to meet March 9, the anniversary of Amanda’s death. Like Ronald Pierce, Garrett was nervous as he arrived at the park. The feeling didn’t last long.
When they met, Garrett’s mother, without a word, gave Jessica Pierce a warm hug.
“Five minutes after meeting them I remember thinking my family is about to expand,” Garrett said. “It’s a pretty incredible feeling.”
That day, the families talked for hours. The Pierces told Garrett and his mother everything they could about Amanda. The Leopolds told about the months Garrett had waited at the hospital for a donor.
“He’s a good kid,” said Pierce, 60, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., and is an optometrist at a Pearle Vision office in Brandon, Fla. “I consider him my son now.”