- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

NORTH BEND, Ore. (AP) - An orange stethoscope lies on the corner of the kitchen counter, a tangible symbol of the eternal bond that now links two Oregon families.

Bum-bum. Bum-bum. Bum-bum. Penny Krueger’s heartbeat is 102 beats per minute. Joey Carley’s mother, grandmother, cousins, ex-girlfriends anxiously pick up the stethoscope’s earpieces, knowing full well what they’ll hear. But tears still stream down their faces the second her heartbeat - his heartbeat - reaches their ears.

It’s Penny’s heart now - but it wasn’t always.

Joey died at 9:38 a.m. Monday, May 11.

The massive brain hemorrhage that preceded his death came just hours before his family had been planning to take him off life support in Corvallis.

At the same time in Portland, Penny and her husband Phil were coming to terms with the fact that she had two to three weeks to live. That day or the next, she would be sent home.

Then they got the life-changing phone call. By early morning on Tuesday, May 12, Phil was gripping Penny’s hand while doctors fluttered around her, prepping her for surgery as she was whisked away.

Five hours later, Joey’s heart started beating again.

Losing Joey

Joey, 39, was having seizures, said his stepfather, Kent Lucas, and apparently tried to drive himself to Bay Area Hospital at about 3:30 a.m. Friday, May 8. Another seizure stopped his heart while he was driving, and the car went up the bank on Thompson Road and flipped.

Emergency crews said it took 12 minutes to get Joey’s heart going again. “We knew he had brain damage at that point,” Kent said.

On Saturday, May 9, Joey was life-flighted to Corvallis. “He had very little brain stem activity,” said Debi Lucas, his mother. His family talked about what would happen Monday: Joey would be taken off life support and if he died within the hour his kidneys and liver would be donated.

“I wasn’t going to wait, because I knew Joey was gone,” Debi said. “I knew he was gone when I saw him. I wasn’t going to let him suffer like that.”

Joey is one of 117 organ donors in Oregon so far this year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There are 823 candidates on the waiting list for organs in Oregon.

Penny was one of them.

Giving Penny life

In November 2013, Penny had a massive heart attack. For most healthy people, their heart pumps out 55 to 70 percent of its blood with each contraction. Penny now had reduced ejection fraction; her heart was only going at 20 percent. She was told she had two to five years to live.

The next year and a half was a series of ups and downs. She went to cardiac rehab, improved, then went downhill again. An Impella was inserted for 10 days, and when they went to remove it, they found a massive blood clot. She was doing OK, Phil said. Then she took another turn for the worse and was life-flighted to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. After a few days, she came around and was sent home.

Then she got worse, again, and returned to OHSU the first week of May. At this point, her heart was failing.

She had four choices: heart transplant, heart pump, inotropic drug therapy or hospice. Penny and Phil decided against the heart pump, and they thought a heart transplant was months away. She went on the drug therapy and was pushing through - “but the statistics are that 50 percent of the people don’t make it six months, and 80 percent don’t make it a year,” Phil said.

“She was so sick,” he said.

By the weekend of May 9, they had to start coming to terms with the fact that she wouldn’t live much longer. Until that phone call.

Joey’s heart was a little too big for Penny, but the surgeons made it work.

“They shoved it in there, kinda shook me around,” Penny joked, a wave of laughter hitting Debi, Phil and Kent, who at times struggled to talk through their tears.

That’s how much of the visit went. Joey’s family and friends flooded through the front door all afternoon, a frenzy of people, kids and floppy puppies scurrying through the home. But each time Debi introduced someone to Penny, a hush fell before they quickly embraced her, saying how happy they were to finally meet her.

Penny had woken up anxious. She wanted Joey’s family to like her, but wasn’t sure how they would react. The definition of bittersweet, Debi said.

But Penny was overwhelmed by their kindness, and hopes her and Joey’s story will encourage others to become organ donors.

“That’s the thing. An organ donor can touch so many lives,” Phil said. “And this is just one family … “

” - but look how big this family is,” Penny said.

They finally meet

The Kruegers and the Lucases went around their transplant coordinator. The policy is to wait two years before the recipient can meet the donor’s family. Neither family wanted to wait that long.

Phil knew Joey’s name and had his picture. He researched obituaries in Oregon around the time Penny got her transplant, found Joey’s and saw his list of survivors - which included Debi and Kent. He found their address, and Penny wrote them a letter, including her phone number.

Penny’s phone rang. It was Debi.

Debi and Kent drove to meet Penny and Phil at their Harrisburg home.

“I was standing at the door and I seen her get out of the car and she kind of stopped, and we both kind of hesitated, you know,” Penny said. “Is this going to be OK? And it was awesome.”

The meeting gave both families an opportunity to heal. Debi and Kent say they’re better able to grieve, and it’s helping Penny overcome “recipient’s remorse.”

Penny, Phil and Joey’s family drove two hours north to Newport to meet more of his family and to visit his grave. His headstone was just finished.

Seeing the headstone - which reads “Your light shines so bright” - was another blow for Joey’s 16-year-old daughter, Kailan. She couldn’t make it to the gathering.

“It’s just overwhelming for her,” Debi said. “When she meets Penny, it’s reality. Her dad’s gone.”

Penny knows what Kailan is going through. At 13, her own father was killed in a car wreck. So for the time being, Penny’s connection to Kailan will be a heart-shaped necklace. It’s called a “beating heart” because the diamond in the center never stops moving.

“I knew that was the one,” Penny said.

… and the beat goes on

Laughter crescendoed in the living room and kitchen, typical of the large family and the man they loved, Joey, a commercial fisherman and hairdresser (there’s now a scholarship in his honor at Hair We Are Beauty College in North Bend). He was a charmer, a jokester and a compassionate man who always lit up the room. After lunch - which included a cake that read “1 Heart 2 Lives, Joey & Penny” - Penny picked up the stethoscope and sat quietly at the kitchen table.

One by one, family members knelt in front of her. Hesitantly, they put the earpieces in and either Penny or Phil would hold the resonator against Penny’s chest. Curtis Green, Joey’s cousin, took a knee.

Silence, and then a smile spread across his face and tears filled his eyes.

“Hi, Joey,” he said.


Information from: The World, https://www.theworldlink.com

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