Kim LeBlanc wasn't sure how she would react to meeting the man who received her 15-year-old son's heart after he died.
"It's not something that you would imagine so I'm thinking 'how am I going to feel when I meet this man?'" the 46-year-old Guelph mother recalled. "Am I going to think, 'oh my gosh, that's my son's heart in there.' It wasn't like that at all."
More than a year earlier, in May 2012, LeBlanc's son Tyler Schwering was struck by a tractor trailer while crossing the street after school. He had his headphones on, was lost in "a world of his own" on his phone, his mother said, and stepped off the curb without looking. At first, his family held out hope that he would recover. His body was battered with broken bones and surgeons were working hard to save him. But 48 hours later, their son was gone.
"We were told that there was absolutely zero improvement and that he was brain dead and would never be able to communicate with us," LeBlanc said. The family spent some time alone with Schwering saying goodbye before they were faced with a decision. A representative from the Trillium Gift of Life Network —a provincial organization that facilitates organ transplants —asked if they would consider donating Schwering's organs.
Even though it was something they had never considered, LeBlanc said the decision was a "no-brainer."
"He had a lot of broken bones. So the fact that he was still able to have viable organs, that was pretty amazing. I guess there was something bigger Tyler needed to do."
A new heart
Schwering's liver, pancreas, kidneys and eyes were all donated, as was his heart. Within a few hours of Schwering's family deciding to donate his organs, a 40-year-old father of three from Ancaster was being prepped for surgery. He was getting a new, healthy heart.
"I got that call at three in the morning," Dave Allingham, now 42 recalls. "It was one of those surreal moments where time just stopped."
Two weeks earlier, doctors had given Allingham a 30-day window before a heart transplant would become increasingly difficult. Allingham, despite a healthy active lifestyle, had a genetic heart disease that had slowly built up so much scar tissue that his heart needed machines to deliver blood to the rest of his body. He was bedridden and he thought a lot about everything he was going to miss if he died, he said.
"I wanted to see my kids grow up. I wanted to see them have their lives. There were so many things that were on my list,'" Allingham said. "It really brought on how short life is."
Instead, thanks to Schwering's family, he got a second chance.
Eight days after the transplant, Allingham was home with family recovering and exactly one year later he biked 50 km in the Heart and Stroke Foundation's fundraiser ride in Toronto.
Families spent Christmas together
Due to Ontario privacy laws for both the donor families and recipients, the Trillium Gift of Life Network doesn't reveal the identity of any of the parties involved. But if requested, they'll deliver anonymous letters from organ donor families to recipients and vice versa. First LeBlanc sent a letter to Allingham — as well as the other organ recipients and the driver of the tractor trailer that hit her son — urging him not to feel guilty and to live his life to the fullest. Allingham was extremely moved and, as he had already intended, wrote to thank LeBlanc and her family for the tremendous gift they and their son had given him.
They both thought that would be the end of it, stories of donor families and recipients meeting are rare in Ontario due to privacy laws. But a mutual friend had a hunch that the families were connected. The timing and circumstances were too conspicuous. She eventually proved her theory when she sent Allingham a clip of a TV news report about LeBlanc's family where she read out parts of the letter he had sent. Floored, Allingham asked to be put in touch with LeBlanc and a strong friendship blossomed.
When they finally met, both parties say it was a life-changing experience.
"It was quite wonderful to meet him and to see how well he was doing," LeBlanc said. "I don't see Dave as having my son's heart. That's Dave's heart now. It's two totally different people so just seeing him doing so well, that's what it's about."
Allingham said meeting his donor family was something he hadn't even dreamed would happen.
"Meeting Kim has been an unbelievable blessing in more ways than one."
The two families have become close since that first meeting and even spent this past Christmas together. Both LeBlanc and Allingham are spokespeople for organ donation and hope to raise awareness about the process. For LeBlanc, she said it brought her "a ton" of comfort after her son's death to know that so many other lives would be saved.
"More than I thought I could feel. It just makes a little bit of sense out of a death."
For Allingham, who is also a spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the moment he was told he had a donor his first thought was that another family had to lose someone they loved. He vowed then to do whatever he could to make his donor's legacy meaningful.
"The one thing I said was that 'if that family gives me that unconditional gift of love, I'll do everything in my power to raise awareness,'" he said. "You can literally leave your legacy behind and that's what I want people to know."