Jenn Nelson choked back tears Friday as she listened to 18-year-old Kaylon Marshall’s heartbeat through a stethoscope.
She had never met Marshall before, but the Shreveport native had become the silver lining in her family’s recent tragedy: He was the beneficiary of her dead son’s heart.
Nelson and her husband, Hans, met Friday with Marshall and his family at Ochsner Medical Center during an emotional event that highlighted the transformative effect that an organ donation can have not just on the recipient, but on the donor’s family as well.
After more than a year and a half of waiting, Marshall received his transplanted heart at Ochsner on May 31, hours after 19-year-old Christian Nelson died from a fall in his hometown of Lafayette.
While the Nelsons were still mourning the death of their son, his organs were providing life to Marshall and three others awaiting transplants.
That fact has helped them cope with the emotional toll of losing their son.
“To get something so good to come out of something terrible, it really helps the healing process,” said Jenn Nelson.
The Nelsons and the Marshalls hugged, held hands and savored the special bond that now exists between the two families.
“We have a vested interest in you now,” Hans Nelson said to Marshall with a smile.
Marshall, who suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy, was first listed for a heart transplant in February 2012. He eventually moved from Shreveport to New Orleans with his family as his condition began to deteriorate.
Ochsner is the only hospital in Louisiana that performs pediatric heart transplants. According to Tom Young, a pediatric cardiologist at the hospital, it has done approximately 40 since 1985.
Young said Marshall’s health went severely downhill around January and he had to be fitted with a ventricular assist device, a mechanical pump that supports heart function.
The device stabilized his condition, allowing doctors to wait longer for a transplant. In fact, Young said, doctors were able to pass on a few hearts that were considered only satisfactory matches until they found an excellent fit.
Hours after Christian Nelson died, Marshall’s family received a call at 4 a.m. telling them to be ready for surgery in two hours.
Young said Kaylon Marshall showed no fear on the morning of the operation, literally running into the hospital with his family trailing behind.
“He wasn’t scared, he was excited,” Young said.
The operation was a success, and Marshall is already weaning off his post-operation medication.
Young said he’ll be able to engage in a normal lifestyle with moderate exercise, but will need another heart in the future; the average lifespan of a pediatric heart transplant is 13 to 14 years.
On Friday, Kaylon Marshall was in strong spirits and told a roomful of reporters he was “full of energy.”
Dressed in a bright-orange YOLO shirt, an acronym for “you only live once,” he thanked the Nelsons for the gift their son provided.
“He saved my life,” he said.
Marshall, a former standout nose tackle at Calvary Baptist Academy in Shreveport and a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, said he thinks his new heart may even be responsible for warming him up to the New Orleans Saints, the favorite team of Christian Nelson.
However, he said he’s unlikely to change his football allegiance anytime soon. “You can tell Jerry I’ll never convert,” he joked, referring to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Hans Nelson said he and his wife attempted to contact the Marshalls after they read an article about a young man in New Orleans receiving a new heart around the time of Christian’s death.
They sent a letter to the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency, which helped facilitate the families’ interaction. According to Kristen Heintz, director of public relations and education for the organization, the families communicated via social media and email before arranging to meet in person.
Heintz said that each year about 170 Louisiana residents donate organs and that over 2.1 million are registered to be organ donors. In addition to signing up at the Department of Motor Vehicles when getting a driver’s license, registration can also be completed at LOPA.org.
Pamela Marshall said that before her son’s transplant she hadn’t been signed up as an organ donor, but she is now registered and urges others to do the same.
“If somebody could save my child, I could save somebody else’s,” she said.
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