How Rod Carew learned his new heart and kidney came from an NFL player

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How Rod Carew learned his new heart and kidney came from an NFL player

By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, California – The story of how Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew figured out that his new heart and kidney came from NFL player Konrad Reuland is best told through the two people most responsible for solving the mystery.

The lead investigators: Rhonda Carew, Rod’s wife, and Mary Reuland, Konrad’s mom.

Distant acquaintances at first, the women bonded quickly while trying to figure out whether Konrad’s tragic death also helped save Rod’s life.

It all began around 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, when the Carews received a call that donor organs had been found. Rod needed them because of a heart attack and subsequent complications.

As they drove to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, the Carews called family and friends to share their good news.

Several folks responded with the same strange question: Do you think it’s Konrad Reuland?

The Carews knew of Reuland, an NFL tight end who’d gone to middle school with their kids. Not having heard his name in years, and having plenty of other things on their minds, they let it go.

Early on Dec. 16, Rod was wheeled off to the operating room and Rhonda settled in for the long, tense wait. As she scrolled through her texts and emails, she kept seeing references to Reuland, so she Googled him.

She learned he died from a ruptured brain aneurysm – on Monday. This was Friday. She’d long been told there was a four-hour window to the get the heart from donor to recipient. Between that and the oddity of their shared past, she thought the theory of him being the donor was “too farfetched.”

But she knew it wasn’t out of the question.

The Carews had been told the donor was an exceptionally healthy local man in his late 20s. The man’s identity was enough on Rhonda’s mind that when the transplant surgeon came to tell her all went well, she wrapped up their conversation by asking the donor’s exact age.

“29,” the doctor said.

Rhonda’s spine tingled. Not because that was Reuland’s age but because that was the jersey number Rod wore his entire 19-year career and the reason his heart disease awareness campaign with the American Heart Association is called “Heart of 29.”

Rhonda remained convinced the theory wasn’t true. Still, over the next 10 days, she heard it often.

Between both families being longtime Orange County residents, and Rod and Konrad being pro athletes, they know a lot of the same people. Many of those people connected the dots. For instance, the Minnesota Twins president heard it from a friend at Stanford, where Konrad went to college.

Mary Reuland, however, didn’t have it all spelled out for her until Dec. 23, at a private dinner following Konrad’s funeral and burial.

She gasped. As a child, he was her favorite player. She recalled their families’ overlapping years at St. John’s Episcopal School. But she knew nothing about his transplant before then. Several more people mentioned it that night.

The next day, Mary Googled Carew. He fit the loose description they’d been given of the heart recipient: a 71-year-old man from Orange County treated at Cedars-Sinai. They’d also been told the final organ was transplanted Dec. 16, the same date as Carew’s operation.

“I was 99.999 percent sure” Mary said. “It was meant to be.”

She sent word of her conviction to Rhonda through mutual friends. A few days later, Mary called Rhonda. Not recognizing the number, she let it go to voice mail.

“Hearing her voice made it more real,” Rhonda said. “She was so excited about the idea that Konrad’s heart went to such a good person.”

And so began their joint investigation.

The first issue to resolve was the timing – the two days between Reuland’s death and Carew being notified, then another day and half until the transplant. How could a heart last that long?

It didn’t. Reuland was declared dead because of a lack of brain activity, but life support kept his body going so organs and tissue could be donated. The heart was recovered last.

Another issue: How could a 71-year-old could get organs from a 29-year-old?

Usually, they don’t. It happened this time because of Hepatitis B.

Rhonda was told the donor carried a trace of the disease, making him immune. A recipient had to also be immune or they’d be susceptible to developing the disease. This eliminated everyone ahead of Carew.

Then came the primary reason Rhonda still believed Konrad wasn’t the donor: Blood type.

Rod is B-negative, one of the rarest types. Konrad is an O, which Rhonda thought ended the conversation. O is the universal blood type and can go to any recipient, and Rhonda knew Rod wasn’t at the top of the waiting list.

Then Rhonda was told the donor’s blood type was O.

At that point, she laughed away her protesting and said, “Oh dear. It must be true.”

Mary called One Legacy – the Los Angeles-area chapter of Donate Life, the nationwide organ procurement network – and laid out her case, including the part about people all over the country who had put the pieces together. Instead of asking for the identity of the recipient, she asked for verification that it was Rod.

Officials were stunned. They’d never heard of an anonymously matched transplant between families that knew each other.

As for Rod, he knew little of Rhonda’s sleuthing. She finally told him after nailing down the blood type. But he was still too overwhelmed by the transplant and recovery for it to register.

That happened in late January, after he left a rehab facility.

“When he looked at me in total disbelief, that’s when I knew he truly understood it,” Rhonda said.

Rod wanted to meet the Reulands right away, to let them listen to Konrad’s heart beating inside his chest. He kept asking Rhonda, “When are we going?”

On March 2, the Carews visited the Reuland’s home for a tear-filled reunion. It included the magic moment of Mary and her husband Ralf listening to Konrad's heart in Rod’s chest.

The case was closed. And a friendship was cemented.

“I really believe that if we’d met under different circumstances, we’d be close friends,” Mary told Rhonda.

“We will be now,” Rhonda said.

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