Heart transplant recipient meets with donor's family in emotional Zoom call | KSTP.com

Heart transplant recipient meets with donor's family in emotional Zoom call

Alex Jokich
Updated: April 01, 2021 08:15 PM
Created: April 01, 2021 07:41 PM

The family of a young man from the west metro who died suddenly last fall just met the person whose life he saved through organ donation.

Jonathan Souvannalath, a 25-year-old from Chanhassen, suffered a severe asthma attack in September, was rushed to the hospital and died a few days later.

His family said they decided to donate his organs because his life mission was to serve others. Souvannalath worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, helping people through struggles he had personally faced earlier in life. He battled heroin addiction before getting sober in 2017.

5 EYEWITNESS News first reported Souvannalath's story in October, after learning his heart, liver and kidneys saved four lives.

At the time, his fiancée, Carey Yath, said she hoped to one day meet the man who received his heart.

"The one thing he always said was no matter where he went or no matter where we were, that our hearts are always connected, no matter what," Yath said during the interview in October.

Six months later, the family learned the heart recipient wanted to meet them as well.

"Less than 1% of organ donor families go on to meet at least one of their loved one's recipients," said Heather Schmitt, a donor family advocate at LifeSource, the organ procurement organization serving Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and western Wisconsin. "For them to be able to go on and meet and have this connection is such a rare thing and brings both families so much peace."

Souvannalath's heart went to Jerry Walter, a 66-year-old retired Army officer in Hillsboro, North Carolina.

"I've been living on the edge for quite a long time," Jerry Walter said. "I have Fabry disease, a rare genetic disorder that affects almost the entire body."

Jerry Walter said he first learned he had Fabry disease when he was 25 years old. Over time, it caused serious problems with his heart. He had a combination pacemaker-defibrillator installed in 2007 and has undergone many other heart procedures since then. 

"When someone has Fabry disease, the leading cause of death is cardiac failure or sudden death from a cardiac arrhythmia," explained Jerry Walter's wife, Angela. "The most frightening part for us was in 2017 when Jerry's defibrillator shocked him 13 times in the span of about 35 minutes on the sidewalk in front of our home."

Jerry Walter’s condition rapidly deteriorated in the summer of 2020, landing him in the intensive care unit. He was told his only hope of leaving the hospital alive was a heart transplant.

"My heart had gotten so bad, I didn't have much time left," Jerry Walter said. "It got very real toward the end that I was going to die. I wasn't ready to go and this saved my life."

Jerry Walter received the life-changing call in late September, learning that he would receive the heart of a 25-year-old man from Minnesota.

"It kind of felt like a sacred space in a way because you're filled with so much gratitude, but all we could think about was what their family was going through," Angela Walter said. 

Jerry Walter underwent his heart transplant at Duke University Medical Center. The Walters said the Duke heart transplant team was instrumental in helping their family navigate the challenging journey of a heart transplant.

"It's incredible. It's a miracle and it's the best gift of life that you could imagine," Angela Walter said. "We really wanted to meet Jonathan's family to thank them because I didn’t know if they realized how much of an impact they had. Not only did they save Jerry's life, but the work that he's doing for those in the rare disease community has been greatly impacted because of that decision they made."

This week, six months after the transplant, the two families finally were able to meet via Zoom.

"My grandma just said she's really happy and grateful you got the gift. She's happy it was you," Jonathan's brother, Jimmy Souvannalath, said to Jerry Walter during the meeting.

The families spoke for about an hour. The Walters learned about what Jonathan accomplished in his life as an addiction treatment counselor and the Souvannalaths heard about the nonprofit Jerry Walter started to support those with Fabry disease.

"You guys are actually very similar people, with helping the community, helping groups, helping others," Jimmy Souvannalath said to Jerry Walter. "We just felt like Jonathan's heart going to you was meant to be."

"I have a new lease on life. I'm sitting here today because of what Jonathan did," Jerry Walter told the family. "I'm happy to still be here and I hope I can make you all proud of what I'm continuing to do in my life."

The Walters brought a digital stethoscope to the Zoom meeting, to allow the family to listen to Jonathan's heartbeat.

"Once I heard his heartbeat, I felt happy and I just felt really relieved that somebody in this world had my brother's heart," said Ellie Souvannalath, Jonathan's younger sister.

"I just feel so connected to them," added Holly Zybarth, Jonathan's mother. "It's like we've known each other a long time. And now we are family."

The Walters said they have a photo of Jonathan Souvannalath displayed in their home, in their collection of family photos.

"His story has ended with us, but it's still going on with someone else and that gives me a lot of hope," Yath said through tears.

April is National Donate Life Month and Fabry Disease Awareness Month.

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