March 1, 2019

Kevin Hartley was an organ donor, and his mother had one wish: to hear her son’s heartbeat one more time

Thanks to his heart recipient, Rhonda Lucas, she got the chance.

The recipient is Rhonda Lucas and the mother of the organ donor is Wendy Hartley. Her son, Kevin, donated the heart that Lucas received. Vanderbilt heart transplant recipient is meeting her donor family for the first time. The emotional meeting will take place in the 6th floor Critical Care Tower conference room, near the entrance to the atrium. The donor family plans to listen to the heartbeat of their loved one's donor heart.. Photo by Joe Howell

Wendy Hartley hears her son Kevin’s heart beating in Rhonda Lucas. Lucas received Kevin’s transplanted heart in 2017. Photo by Joe Howell

As her 21-year-old son Kevin lay dying in a hospital bed, Wendy Hartley asked her daughter, Amber, to find a stethoscope. She wanted to listen to his heartbeat once more before he passed.

Nearly two years after his death, she heard his heartbeat again — this time in the chest of Rhonda Lucas, a Johnson City, Tennessee, nurse who received his heart. Hartley met Lucas for the first time at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Feb. 14, and almost as quickly as they met, Hartley reached for a stethoscope and heard a familiar sound.

“That’s my baby,” Hartley said.

“I’ve made it so far with him,” Lucas said.

“I know that rhythm,” Hartley replied.

A picture of Kevin Hartley that his mom brought to her meeting with his heart recipient, Rhonda Lucas.

“Thank you for raising such an amazing young man,” Lucas said. “Thank you, Wendy. Thank you. I’m so grateful. He’s my hero. I’m getting to spend more time with my husband.”

On April 27, 2017, Kevin Hartley was refinishing a bathtub when he was discovered unconscious, overcome by toxic fumes. His brother, Michael, performed CPR on him until the paramedics arrived. Paramedics got his heart beating until he made it to the hospital, but doctors found no brain activity.

Wendy Hartley then discovered that her son, the youngest of her three children, had registered as an organ and tissue donor. She contacted Tennessee Donor Services, the federally-designated donor network that facilitates organ and tissue donation in the region. On May 1, 2017, Kevin donated his heart, lung and kidneys, saving four lives. One of them was Lucas.

“It was wonderful what he did,” Lucas said. “And he was so young when he did it.”

On that first day of May, Lucas’ heart was failing. Her ejection fraction, the measurement of the percentage of blood leaving the heart during a beat, was 13 percent. A normal measurement is 55 percent or higher. Hartley’s heart came just in time.

Lucas later had a medical episode that resulted in her kidneys failing — requiring her to undergo dialysis and perhaps become a candidate for a kidney transplant. But she is grateful to be alive.

“It was a long journey as far as the heart transplant, the heart failure, the surgeries, but it’s all worth it if you get to spend one more day by the grace of God and by the grace of organ donors and people who are willing to sacrifice so much,” Lucas said. “That’s what it means to me.”

“To see that Rhonda is alive because of Kevin, it’s just amazing,” Hartley said. “She’s had one more day, and that’s all I ever wished for. One more day of hugs and one more day for children and one more day for her husband. That’s all it’s about.”

“Thank you for raising such an amazing young man,” Lucas said. “Thank you, Wendy. Thank you. I’m so grateful. He’s my hero. I’m getting to spend more time with my husband.”

Since her son’s death, Hartley has become an advocate for organ donation.

“I want to encourage everybody. If you are not registered as an organ donor, please do so, because one person can save up to eight people,” she said. “Do it. Why not? What do you have to lose?”

To learn more about becoming an organ and tissue donor, visit donatelifetn.org. Tennessee drivers can also choose to become an organ donor on their driver’s license applications. Donors are encouraged to share their decisions with their families.

Vanderbilt Transplant Center is a leading provider of organ transplantation in the Southeast and Tennessee’s only full-service transplant center. Learn more at https://www.vanderbilthealth.com/transplant/.