Nfld. & Labrador

Labrador family ecstatic after finding recipient of son's donated heart

The Loder family wanted to know where 20-year-old Jeff's heart had ended up — and the man who received it wanted to know where it came from.

Inside Robert Buttle of Kingston, Ont., beats the heart that belonged to Jeff Loder of Happy Valley-Goose Bay

Pat Loder and her daughter Jodi shared these letters in hopes of finding the man who wrote them — the man who received a heart from their late son and brother Jeff. (John Gaudi/CBC)

On Sunday morning, Robert Buttle of Kingston, Ont., was surprised to find himself the subject of a news story.

There was no picture of him, he hadn't been interviewed, and his name wasn't mentioned. But there, in a story about a Labrador family looking for the recipient of a late son's donated heart, were pictures of letters that Buttle had written, anonymously, to them — because he was the one who'd received it.

Buttle was told about the story from his daughter-in-law.

Recognized his handwriting

"I got a text from her, saying there's something of real interest on the Facebook," said Buttle, who went on to read a story about the Loders of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, who were hoping to find the recipient of a heart from Jeff Loder, who was 20 when he took his own life two years ago. Buttle recognized the letters held by Pat Loder and her daughter Jodi as his own.

"I knew right off the bat it was my letter because of my terrible hand scratching, plus at the very end of it, I quite often put a fish, a whole fish sort of as my signing-off thing," he said.

The Loders had hoped a CBC interview and online story last week about their search for the recipient would help them find the man whose chest holds Jeff's heart — and Buttle was just as happy to find out where his new lease on life had come from.

Robert Buttle says he recognized his own handwriting — as well as the fish with which he often signs his letters. (John Gaudi/CBC )

"The hospitals make it almost impossible to know the donor people, and I can understand in some instances why it's that way, but in my case and Pat's case, it was the total opposite," he said. "I wanted to connect with this family right off the bat."

Buttle, speaking to CBC's Labrador Morning with his wife, Brenda, and Pat Loder, said immediately after the transplant, on July 31, 2016, he started wondering about — and grieving for — the person whose heart he'd been given.

Rules prohibit disclosure of identities

But provincial rules don't allow the identities of either end of an organ donation to be disclosed to the other, and the Organ Procurement Exchange of Newfoundland and Labrador screens letters between donor families and recipients, redacting information that refers to the locations or the identities of the people involved.

That's one of the reasons why the Loders went public with their search.

Pat Loder said it was encouraging to see so many people sharing the story that helped connect the families.

We knew Jeff was not going to survive, so we could have sat and waited for it be all over, or we fought to save something.- Pat Loder

"We all deal with tragedy to one extent or another. We don't get the chance to celebrate new life or a second chance," she said.

Brenda Buttle was also keen to thank the donor's family, because of what it meant to her husband.

"I saw him go from a very strong, vibrant man over the past five, six years before the heart, dwindling down to the point where we had to retire," he said.

"Right after that, things just went downhill. And that's when the heart came. We were just ecstatic; there was no words. But then we felt, 'Oh my — someone had to give up their life for Rob to have a life.' So it was bittersweet."

After seeing the story, the Buttles got in touch with the Loders, and the two families have been speaking on the phone and through a video chat, quickly becoming friends.

Jodi Loder tattooed the organs her brother Jeff donated. She asked Robert Buttle to colour in the flowers encircling the heart. He chose green. (John Gaudi/CBC)

"Our family says [Pat is] part of our family, and I think we're part of hers. I think Jeff has brought us together in his own little way," said Brenda Buttle.

They're hoping for a face-to-face visit, but Robert Buttle will have to be cleared to fly first. And the Loders' and Buttles' doors will all be open to each other.

"I keep saying to my family, listen, relax: this is more about him right now. He needs to get his health in order. There's plenty of time. We have a lifetime. We have a lifetime," said Loder.

Finding Buttle provided closure

"Now we do, thanks to you," said Robert Buttle.

"And Rob has more time, because he's got a 20-year-old heart!" said Brenda Buttle.

Loder said learning who has her son's heart — especially someone who loved the outdoors, and fishing, like Jeff did — provided some closure for her. His lungs and liver were also donated.

"For us, this was always a light," he said. "Jeff didn't die to save him. We fought for organ donation when we arrived that morning at the hospital. We knew Jeff was not going to survive, so we could have sat and waited for it to be all over, or we fought to save something."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning