Stories about organ transplants naturally tend to involve a wide range of mixed emotions, and the tale of former Twins great Rod Carew’s heart and kidney transplant — publicized for the first time recently — certainly qualifies.
When Carew got the ultimate gift of an extended life thanks to vital organs he has needed since suffering a massive heart attack in September 2015, it meant another life had ended.
On Tuesday, a more complete picture emerged of the remarkable story that transpired in late 2016: Konrad Reuland, a 29-year-old former NFL tight end, died Dec. 12 of a brain aneurysm. Two days later, Carew received Reuland’s heart and left kidney in what is believed to be the first organ transplant between two professional athletes.
The Carew and Reuland families shared the story of their journeys in a news conference Tuesday in Encino, Calif.
“We know we have one grieving family and one elated family,” said Carew’s wife, Rhonda. “For the grieving family to step forward and seek this out really says a lot about their character as people and a family.”
Reuland, who appeared in 30 career NFL games with the Jets and Ravens, the most recent coming in 2015, was in “tiptop shape,” said his younger brother, Austin. But two days after Thanksgiving, he developed a severe headache while jogging on a treadmill. Two weeks later, Reuland was dead at age 29.
Reuland’s heart and left kidney were matched with Carew, 71. His liver and other kidney each went to other transplant patients.
All of those donations were vital. The heart now beating inside Carew’s body, though, created the strongest emotional bond between the Carew and Reuland families.
“The last day I was with Konrad, I actually laid my ear on his chest and listened to his heartbeat,” said Mary Reuland, Konrad’s mother. “To hear it beat again, I don’t even know if there’s a word to put to that. Maybe miraculous? It was a wonderful thing to be able to hear part of my son still here on earth.”
Austin Reuland said his family went to visit Konrad’s grave on April 4, which would have been his 30th birthday. They didn’t expect to see the Carew family, but there they were.
“His heart was a Ferrari, and Rod got quite the heart,” Austin Reuland said. “I couldn’t be happier to see Konrad’s heart went to someone so deserving. … He’s a part of our family now. I’m very thankful.”
Carew said he experienced doubts as he waited for his transplant and wasn’t sure what to expect when meeting the family of his donor.
But tragedy and new life have linked them forever.
“When we first met it was like we had known each other for a lifetime,” Carew said. “I promised I would take care of Konrad’s heart. Whatever journey I take, he’s going to be right there with me.”