Baseball Hall of Famer and recent transplant recipient Rod Carew now knows whose heart and kidney are keeping him alive.
Those organs are from Konrad Reuland, an National Football League (NFL) tight end who died following a ruptured brain aneurysm.
This is believed to be the first such transplant involving pro athletes. Yet that’s only one of many links the men shared.
Another is that Reuland went to middle school with Carew’s children, so donor and recipient crossed paths before.
Figuring out the connection
Mutual friends immediately connected the dots between Reuland’s death and Carew’s new chance at life.
Working together, the families discovered it likely was true, then got it confirmed by the local organ procurement network.
On March 2, the families met at the Reuland home for a remarkable reunion – one family filled with joy, the other still grieving, both bonded by a young man’s selfless gift.
“You’re a part of our family now,” Mary Reuland, Konrad’s mom, told Carew and his wife, Rhonda.
“Yes,” Carew said. “Forever.”
Ralf Reuland, Konrad’s father, is a physician.
Using one of his stethoscopes, he, Mary and their youngest son Austin each heard Konrad’s heart thumping inside Rod’s chest.
As Mary listened, the edges of her mouth widened and her eyebrows jumped.
“There it is,” she said softly, breaking into a full smile and laying her head onto Rod’s shoulder.
“Does it sound the same?” Rhonda said.
Mary lifted her head, nodded and said, “I’ve got it memorized.”
When Ralf heard the beat, he pressed his eyes shut. He opened his mouth but didn’t speak. A moment later he said, “Welcome home Konrad.”
Young heart goes to family hero
Konrad died Dec. 12. He was 29.
Over the final hours Mary spent with her oldest child, she kept her right ear on his chest. Her final words to the representative of the organ procurement network were, “Make sure his heart goes to a really good person because Konrad was a really good person.”
Upon learning Konrad’s heart might’ve gone to Carew, Mary could hardly breathe.
She remembered going to the Anaheim Angels’ stadium as a child with her dad and brothers to watch him play. Carew was her favorite player.
She then researched Carew. Reading about his character and charity work – and that he, too, had endured the pain of burying a child – she decided he was a worthy recipient. She told him so when they met.
“Thank you,” Carew said. “I will take care of this heart. Because I’ve been given a second chance. God knows how I feel and what I’m going to do for Him.”
Whenever organs are transplanted into famous people – and whenever those people are Carew’s age, 71 – questions arise about preferential treatment.
Add in the pro sports connection and their shared past, and this case is sure to draw even more scrutiny. However, strict protocols ensured the donation process was anonymous.
Had the Reulands wanted Carew to have Konrad’s organs, they could’ve steered them his way. It’s called a “directed donation.”
Also noteworthy is that Carew’s health placed him so high on the waiting list despite his age.
“We are so thankful, so grateful, so … there aren’t adequate words,” Rhonda told the Reulands.
A young life taken
The full story of this transplant seems like something conjured in nearby Hollywood.
The tale begins with Konrad attending St. John’s Episcopal School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, from sixth through eighth grades.
Rhonda’s daughter Cheyenne was there all three years, and her son Devon also was there Konrad’s final year. Devon was later basketball teammates with Konrad’s younger brother Warren.
Future donor and recipient likely interacted several times. The first encounter left quite an impression on Konrad, who was around 11.
“All he talked about for the rest of that day was, `I met Rod Carew!’” Mary said.
A basketball star in his early teens, Konrad began playing football and became the nation’s top tight end coming out of high school. He went to Notre Dame, then transferred to Stanford, spending three seasons as a teammate of his brother, Warren.
Konrad played several seasons in the NFL with the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens. He also spent time with the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts released him last August, so he spent the fall working out at home with his youngest brother, Austin.
After years of being slowed by a torn knee ligament and foot surgery, Konrad was in the best shape of his life – a taut 6-foot-6, 270 pounds – while waiting for a team to call.
He also had begun preparing for life after football. He took part in an NFL Business Academy at the University of Michigan last spring, then began dabbling in commercial real estate by buying a four-unit apartment complex.
Two days after Thanksgiving, he was on a treadmill when he felt “a click” behind his left eye and a severe headache. That was the emergence of the aneurysm, a ballooning of an artery in his brain.
It burst a few days later. A 17-hour operation followed. He never woke from a coma, his brain activity ceasing about two weeks later.
A life saved
Carew’s medical odyssey began in September 2015 when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack while playing golf.
He spent a year with a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, in his chest handling the work of his damaged heart.
Last fall, blood thinners he took as part of his LVAD protocol led to bleeding in his brain, making it more urgent for him to get a new heart.
He went on the transplant waiting list the Friday before Thanksgiving and moved higher a few weeks later. He got the call that a match was found on Dec. 14. He received the heart and kidney two days later.
The scene that would forever bind Carew and Reuland occurred last April in the kitchen of Mary and Ralf’s home.
Mary was cooking dinner while Konrad was renewing his driver’s license. He asked her whether he should become an organ donor. She called it a personal choice, so he asked what her choice was. She said she’d signed up to do it, so he did, too.
The families learned about their possible connection from their overlapping networks of friends. For instance, Devon Carew and Warren Reuland are Facebook friends.
Word began to spread in Orange County, then across the sports world among people who knew of both sagas.
The only details the Carews received prior to the transplant were that the donor was “male, late 20s, local, exceptionally healthy.” They later learned his exact age: 29.
The Reulands were told the recipient was a 71-year-old man from Orange County who was treated at Cedars-Sinai.
While such a wide age discrepancy might seem odd, the key factor was Hepatitis B. Both were immune. Nobody ahead of Carew on the transplant list was.
Timing and blood type worked out, too. Ultimately, Rod happened to be the right guy in the right place when the wrong thing happened to Konrad.
Getting out the word
Now both families aim to harness the power of this story to help more people.
They want to draw attention to heart disease and brain health, hopefully spurring people to step up their prevention efforts. Heart disease and stroke are the world’s leading causes of death.
Heart disease has touched the Reulands, too. Mary lost her father and a 31-year-old brother to heart attacks; Ralf’s father has received a stent and battles atrial fibrillation.
Both families want to encourage more people to become organ donors. To understand the difference one donor can make, consider that Konrad’s organs and tissues could go to several hundred people.
The full extent won’t be known for about a year. Carew’s family has long been signed up as organ donors in memory of his daughter, Michelle, who died of leukemia when she was unable to get a match for a bone marrow transplant.
The Reulands also are seeking donations for an endowment fund in Konrad’s name through Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Another fund was established by the football coach at Mission Viejo High School for a plaque that will hang under the scoreboard at the stadium, with any leftover money going to a scholarship fund.
The families look forward to working together – especially on “Heart of 29,” the campaign Carew started last year with the American Heart Association.
The program’s name came from the jersey number that Carew wore throughout his career. Because Konrad died at 29, the name carries added meaning.
“The whole thing is just unbelievable,” Rod said. “I’ve been given a second chance so I’m going to take advantage of it. And I’ve got another family.
“This is going to be great.”