What do you say to the family whose greatest loss became your greatest gift? How do you respond to their poignant words of support?
Tyler Jaenicke, 25, has had more than two years to turn these weighty questions over in his mind. This weekend, he and his family have begun to convey their answers in person as they spend time with the parents and sister of the young man whose donated heart saved Tyler’s life.
For the donor’s parents, Jo Ann and Phil Britton of Aurora, Illinois, the meeting was a chance to encourage Tyler and share some stories about their son, Nick, who was 28 when he died on June 18, 2016.
“We’re grateful for this opportunity to meet Tyler and express our love for him, and our joy that he’s able to put Nick’s heart to good use,” Phil said.
The two families shared hugs, tears and stories as they got acquainted. The gathering included Tyler’s parents, Paul and Rhonda, and two brothers, Josh and Nicky, as well as the Brittons’ daughter and son-in-law, Meganne and Ryan, and their 3-year-old son, Bennett.
The families planned to meet again Friday evening to watch Tyler play hockey with his Davenport University team. Tyler, a graduate student, plans to earn an MBA degree this summer.
Cheering at one of Tyler’s games is an idea the Brittons suggested after learning of his lifelong love of hockey in a letter he sent them.
“Around the one-year mark of my transplant, I sent the first letter, telling them how grateful and blessed I am, and what I’ve been doing, and my goal to play college hockey,” said Tyler, who gave up playing competitively before his transplant, as his cardiomyopathy worsened.
The letter revealed unexpected parallels and connections between Tyler and his donor, Nick’s parents said.
“We were so struck when we got the first letter from Tyler and he introduced himself and he told us about his love for hockey and his desire to play hockey again—we were just overwhelmed with that sense that he was just like Nick,” Jo Ann said.
“For Nick it was football, but for Tyler it’s hockey—that great love for the sport.”
Both young men also served as youth coaches, Tyler in hockey and Nick in football and baseball. And both wore the number 19 on their jerseys.
“We’re filled with joy to know that you’re able to play hockey again and to know that you’re able to enjoy life,” Phil told Tyler.
“We know that Nick would want that. We’re here to celebrate with you guys, too.”
Celebrating organ donation
Celebration is an important part of the message of organ transplantation, said Michael Dickinson, MD, medical director for the heart and lung transplant program.
“It’s so significant what you and your family did for Tyler … and he is showing everyone how powerful transplant is,” Dr. Dickinson told the Britton family.
“We’re not in the transplant business to keep people alive; we’re in the transplant business so that people can really live,” the doctor said. “And that’s the joy that we have in Tyler.”
During the gathering, Dr. Dickinson helped members of the Britton family use a stethoscope to hear Nick’s heart beating in Tyler’s chest.
Gift-giving was also part of the families’ time together. Tyler’s mom gave Nick’s mom a bracelet with a heart pendant that reads “One heart, two souls.”
“After the transplant, Tyler’s surgeon told us it was the healthiest heart he had ever seen,” Rhonda told Jo Ann. “That’s always stuck with us, and we’re so grateful.”
Bennett, Nick’s nephew, received a teddy bear with an embedded recording of his uncle’s heartbeat. The bear, a gift from Tyler and his transplant team, is dressed as a hockey player, wearing a Chicago Blackhawks hockey uniform.
Bennett is himself a hockey player and a big fan of the game. He planned to join Tyler on the ice before the game Friday evening and participate in a ceremonial puck drop.
Reflecting on life after his transplant, Tyler said he’s the strongest he’s ever been and is still growing healthier.
“It’s incredible, how I feel. I’m in the best shape of my life,” he said.
Nick’s giving spirit
The Brittons described Nick as a kind, generous young man who was well loved by his friends and family. Organ donation, Phil said, is “a reaffirmation of Nick’s giving nature. It’s just who he was.”
A lifelong athlete, Nick loved playing football, baseball and basketball. He was voted most valuable player of his high school football team his senior year and played a year of college football before injuries kept him out of the game.
He later developed a seizure disorder, which made him forfeit his driver’s license for several months. When he got his license back, he signed up to become an organ donor, his dad said, choking up.
“He said, ‘I hope I don’t have to use it, but if I do, I’m excited to do it,’” Phil said, affirming his son’s decision.
A year later, Nick died unexpectedly.
One morning before work, Phil went to wake Nick up and couldn’t rouse him. He had a heartbeat but was unconscious—likely because of a seizure or a blood clot.
He was taken to the hospital by ambulance, but as doctors worked to stabilize him, his heart arrested three times. Each time, the medical team resuscitated him, but his brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long. Though his heart was beating, Nick had no brain activity. After several crushing hours, his family made the decision to withdraw life support.
Doctors arranged for Nick’s lungs, kidneys, corneas and heart all to be donated to patients on national registries. The fulfillment of his wishes comforted his family.
Nick’s heart, his family learned, matched to a young man in Michigan.
Two and a half years later, after meeting and sharing their stories, the families agreed that these two young men would have been good friends. Their stories are so similar, they said.
“We know how strong his heart was, and how much he loved people, and we can see that in you and your whole family,” Jo Ann said.
“I know how he would have been very proud, and I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have chosen you, Tyler.”
Nick’s sister, Meganne, agreed.
“Nick couldn’t have picked a better recipient,” she said.
Through this shared experience, both families have become strong advocates of organ donation registration. They value this new connection they’ve made with one another.
“You’ve been in our minds and prayers the whole time,” Jo Ann told the Jaenicke family.
“You guys have been in ours as well,” said Paul, Tyler’s dad.