Finding Lucas' heart: Minnesota mother tracks down family that received son’s heart
PARKERS PRAIRIE, Minn. — It was Oct. 8, 2013, when two women — strangers at the time — received the phone calls they had been waiting for.
From her home in Alexandria, Nikita Nash answered the phone, already knowing what the caller would say. She was told that her 6-month-old son, Lucas, had been taken into surgery to have his organs removed and prepared for donation.
Nearly 700 miles away, at a hospital in St. Louis, Jenny Carter answered a call she wasn't as prepared for. She was told her 2-month-old son, Kolton, had been matched with the donor heart he so desperately needed. He would have a transplant the next day.
Though they had no knowledge of each other then, the two women's lives became forever intertwined that day, as Kolton received a heart from Lucas.
Four days earlier, on Oct. 4, 2013, Nash's world flipped upside down when Lucas choked on a piece of cat food. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Lucas had been without oxygen too long. He was declared brain dead, and Nash and Lucas' father were faced with the choice of whether to donate his organs. They immediately said yes.
Meanwhile, Carter, who lives in Ratliff City, Okla., had been in the children's hospital in St. Louis with Kolton. Her son was getting sicker by the day. At birth, Kolton was diagnosed with a number of heart problems. Nineteen days after being added to the transplant list, Kolton was matched with Lucas' heart.
The transplant went smoothly, and Kolton began the process of recovery.
Since receiving the call about the heart, Carter had been thinking about the family it had come from. Finally, about five months after the transplant, she decided to go through an agency and write the family a letter.
"I told myself that if it were me, I would want to know that the child is OK," Carter said. "There are no perfect words to say. I'm not a beautiful writer. I just needed to let them know the gift wasn't taken lightly."
Carter sent the letter. Weeks passed, then months. She never heard back because Nash had chosen not to respond.
"With everything that happened with Lucas, I fell into addiction really hard," Nash said. "I wasn't in the place to find her (Carter), so I just let it go."
Even so, Nash kept the letter in a box, tucked away with the rest of Lucas' things. Someday, she thought, she might be ready to find the child who had received her son's heart.
Three and a half years passed. Nash got sober, moved to Parkers Prairie with her husband and three children and began to rebuild her life after losing Lucas. She tried to respond to the letter once, but her letter was returned.
Carter continued caring for Kolton, taking him to numerous appointments and making sure his heart was still functioning well. The donor family never left Carter's thoughts.
"Kolton loves to be rocked to this day, even at 4 years old" Carter said. "I rock him almost every single night. I feel his heart, and when I feel his heart, I think about them (the donor family) because she can't feel her baby's heart. I think about them every night and I pray for them."
As the four-year anniversary of Lucas' death and the transplant approached, Nash toyed with the idea of posting the letter on social media platforms to try and find the author. The letter included only the first names of the Carter family and Nash thought someone might recognize the names and the circumstances.
On Oct. 9, the four-year anniversary of the transplant, Nash posted the letter on her Facebook page. From there, social media worked its magic. In less than an hour, Carter had commented on Nash's post.
"I sent that picture (of the letter) to her and I said, 'Are you the author of this letter?'" Nash said. "I'm bawling at this point and she's like, 'Oh my goodness, I've been wondering about you for years.' And it took off from there."
The two women have talked daily since, even discovering both of their sons' love for bananas.
"The little boy (Lucas) loved bananas," Nash said. "He could eat a jar of bananas in like 2.5 seconds. She (Carter) said the first thing Kolton started eating again was bananas."
Carter sent Nash photos of Kolton, and even recorded a video of Kolton getting an echocardiogram so Nash could hear and see the heartbeat. After seeing the video, Nash took a screenshot of the image of the heartbeat. That same day, she got it tattooed on her chest, along with an "L" for Lucas and a "K" for Kolton.
"It's mind-blowing," Nash said. "Since I reached out to Jenny, this is the closest I've been to my son in four years. That's really heartwarming, to know Kolton is OK and he's making it and he's pushing forward and thriving."
Since connecting with Carter, Nash says she wishes she had reached out sooner, perhaps right away when she received the letter.
"I feel like if I would have (reached out then), my pitfall into addiction wouldn't have happened as fast," she said. "I don't know if it would have happened at all because I would have had closure. For three years I was walking around with this guilt that kept me not wanting anything to do with life."
Carter says she understands Nash needed to wait until the right time, and that she will never take the gift or the organ donation lightly. "They (doctors) always talk about how beautiful his heart is and how beautifully it functions," Carter said. "It's perfect. I always have and always will do my best to take care of it because I feel I'm not just caring for Kolton, I'm caring for Lucas."
Both women say they would love to meet in person, but at the moment it just isn't feasible financially. A Go Fund Me page has been started with hopes of making this possible. It can be found at www.gofundme.com/4l2myd4.