Cori McBride’s mother already had embraced Rich Heath and his family Tuesday when she explained, with a stethoscope around her neck, why an even bigger moment for her was still to come.
“Cori was a very loving and caring person. She loved to help anybody and everybody,” Becky McBride said at Town Chef restaurant in Portage. There, meeting the man who’d received her 15-year-old daughter’s heart, McBride could put her family’s loss into words.
But the stethoscope promised something different, she said, something much harder to explain.
“I’ve been waiting patiently to hear her heart again,” she said.
Whatever the Pardeeville family found in Heath’s heartbeat Tuesday had seemed impossible to the McBrides after the ATV accident that claimed Cori’s life on July 15. Emotions overlapped for Becky McBride’s ex-husband, Sam McBride, who called the experience, “Overwhelming, exciting, passionate.”
“Just, wow,” he concluded. “Unbelievable.”
Heath, 50, of Spring Green, first reached out to the McBrides in a short letter in October, the gesture eventually leading to text messages and phone calls with immediate family. Tuesday’s encounter arranged by Cori’s sister, Amanda Dicken, surprised most of Cori’s nine family members who attended, including her mother.
“There are no words to tell them what this means,” Heath told the Daily Register a few days before meeting the McBrides. On Tuesday, he was joined by three of his four daughters and his wife, Kathy. “I still get to be a husband, a dad, a brother, an uncle, so it’s really beyond the realm of words; it really is.”
The transplant occurred July 17 at UW Hospital in Madison. Heath — who had suffered from congestive heart failure — said he experienced a premonition regarding the surgery on the night of July 16. Despite the fact he was still waiting to be notified of his placement on the state’s donor’s list, “I just had a feeling I’d get the call,” he said.
Heath felt so strongly that July 17 would be the day that he’d already packed his bag for the hospital. By the time his phone rang, “I answered knowing exactly who it was.”
Two days after the surgery, Heath received the letter notifying him he’d made the donor’s list, a letter that also warned the average wait time for a heart was 240 days in 2016.
Receiving Cori’s heart had special meaning to Heath, he said, because he’d lost his younger brother in an ATV accident 30 years ago. Heath was 20 years old at the time of the accident, his brother 19.
“He wanted to be a donor, but my mother wouldn’t let him do it,” Heath said. “This means a lot to me for a lot of reasons — I know what their family is going through.
“My brother’s accident happened 30 years ago, and I still feel it.”
Tuesday’s encounter and the stories Heath shared have helped to change the outlook for the McBride family, Dicken said. “Before we met him, it was very hard this Christmas. But, really, ever since he came to us, things have changed. God couldn’t have given us better timing than this, the day after Christmas.
“It feels like we’ve gained a second family.”
Both families said the most important message they could share with others is the importance of becoming an organ donor, and more specifically, the giving spirit of Cori McBride.
“She loved everyone,” Dicken said of her sister, who loved the outdoors and playing basketball. “No matter who the person was or how they acted, she always made them smile.”
“I was shocked when she told me (she wanted to be a donor),” Becky McBride said. “She was only 15 at the time.
“But she loved to help people; she had such a big heart.”
Heath is one of six recipients who received seven organs from Cori, the McBrides said. They hope to later meet other recipients. Cori’s eyes went to a patient in Israel, and one of her kidneys to a person in Illinois. Her liver, pancreas, bone marrow and other tissues remained in Wisconsin.
“Something good can always come out of something bad, in a case like this,” Heath said.
“Please do it,” Becky McBride said of organ donation. Looking to Heath as he sat with his family, she added, “It helps a lot, and he’s proof of it.”