A flurry of emotions washed over Brooke Eaton’s face as she raised a stethoscope to her ears to listen to her son’s heart beating in another child’s body for the first time.
Nervousness, grief, wonder, elation. All of them appeared to take a turn. And then—overwhelming everything else—a pervading sense of love.
Love for the little girl, Lola Bond, whose life was saved by Brooke’s selfless decision. After her 2-year-old son, Cazmirr “Cash” Landers, drowned in a pool in September 2018 and passed away six days later, Brooke chose to donate his organs. Little Lola received Cash’s heart.
On Wednesday, Brooke met Lola and her grandparents during a special donor-recipient gathering at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, the hospital where Lola underwent her life-saving heart transplant.
“I walked into the room and immediately broke down and cried,” Brooke said. “As soon as I saw her, I fell in love with her. She’s just precious.”
Lola was just five months old when the transplant took place. Diagnosed with 1p36 syndrome, a rare genetic condition, Lola also had cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes an enlarged heart. Weakened by its size, Lola’s heart couldn’t pump blood effectively. It was also crushing her surrounding organs. Lola was in desperate need of a donor, and the Bonds were running out of hope until a call came saying a match had been found.
On Sept. 4, 2018, Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgeon Massimo Griselli, MD, conducted Lola’s heart transplant procedure. Lola’s care team also included Pediatric Cardiologist Rebecca Ameduri, MD, and countless other care providers.
At the time of the transplant, Lola’s grandparents Jeffrey Vorel and Margaret Bond Vorel didn’t know the story behind Lola’s new heart. Only later, working with Gift of Hope—the donor network that helped coordinate the transplant—did Margaret and Brooke begin communicating. It started with a letter, and then text messages. Finally, both sides agreed to meet.
Introductions between transplant donor and recipient families are relatively rare; less than 2 percent of families ever meet, according to Gift of Hope.
“I knew immediately that I wanted to meet them, if that was possible. Because of her great decision, we have Lola,” Margaret said. “Brooke gave us that miracle that we prayed for the entire time.”
But Lola’s family was nervous, too. After learning about the circumstances of Cash’s tragic death, Margaret was haunted by the knowledge. “It had to be the worst day of her life,” Margaret said, referring to Brooke and the accident. “And yet it turned probably the best day of our lives, so there is that guilt in that process.”
For Brooke, the moment—though tremendously sad—was also cathartic.
Cash Landers was a happy and energetic 2-year-old who loved trains and spending time with his family. But he was also a generous child, Brooke said.
“He loved to give to people. He loved to play with other children, he love to share. So his life—giving some of it to Lola and other children—is just part of who he was, who he is. He’s still with us, even though he’s gone.
“I’m just very happy that I can hear his heart, and that I know he’s living his life in her now,” she said.
The idea of two lives and two families united also resonated with Margaret. The Bonds live in north central Minnesota, a 12-hour drive away from Brooke’s home in Illinois. But both families say they plan on conducting future visits together.
“From here on out, Lola’s as much ours as she is hers,” Margaret said. “Knowing that there is a whole other family out there that loves her as much as we do is amazing. Cash’s story can continue with Lola’s journey. Together, it’ll be two really great things.”
Back at the hospital on the day of their meeting, Brooke picked up a stethoscope and—for the first time in nearly a year—listened to Cash’s heart beating. Margaret also gave Brooke a special recording of the heartbeat, so that Brooke can listen to it at any time.
“Oh, that’s the most beautiful sound ever,” Brooke said after hearing the recording.“It was to us, too,” Margaret said.