Sometimes it takes a while to process things. Such was the case after witnessing the meeting of Casey Artzer and his heart donor family, Elizabeth, Rodney, English and Chloe Tong in June of this year. The Artzers arrived on a beautiful Eastern Shore day full of sunshine and hope. I had arrived early to record their meeting, trying to stay in the background of this poignant and touching reunion. This vantage point allowed me another perspective, that of the Tong’s Corgi, Maggie, and it is from Maggie’s point of view that I can share part of this story.
I had met Maggie in puppy class with my Corgi, Schooder. Like most Corgis, Maggie liked to be center stage, greeting people enthusiastically when arriving, jumping with delight and eager to be petted. I guess my focus was still on her a bit when the Casey and his mother Kathy arrived at the Tongs house in June. I wondered how her welcome would interfere with the embraces that the families would share.
As Casey came down the Tong’s sidewalk, seeing Rodney for the first time, the two embraced and held onto each other. My eyes drifted down to Maggie and I realized that she was not jumping up to be greeted, but instead, she was sitting mindfully at Rodney’s feet, looking up at Casey as if to say, “I know you are special and a part of my family too.” We walked inside where Elizabeth Tong was waiting in the foyer of their home. Again, I was struck by Maggie’s attention and behavior, sitting dutifully at Elizabeth’s feet and looking up at Casey in wonder.
Twenty-four years ago, Rodney and Elizabeth Tong, and their daughters English and Chloe, of Royal Oak lost their son and brother, Hunter Tong, age two and one half, to an unexpected death. Hunter’s parents chose to donate Hunter’s organs and his heart went to a one-year old child, Casey Artzer in Topeka, KS. This June, Casey came to meet the Tong family. He had already met English Tong seven years ago, but decided to reach out to the whole family after reading English’s blog post about the visit.
Lisa Colaianni, Donor Family Advocate with The Washington Regional Transplant Community, who met the Tongs after the donation and who has become a family friend, comments, “Today, we have a 25-year old who is alive because of Hunter’s donation. It’s unusual to have a meeting like this happen so many years after the donation. I have facilitated meetings as soon as three months after the death of a donor. The meetings usually take place after a year and usually before five.”
Rodney Tong recalls the week, “We gave Casey a real Eastern Shore experience, taking him sailing for the first time at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum and he loved it. He also rowed with Chloe’s rowing club, the Eastern Shore Community Rowers.”
The Artzers stayed next door at the house belonging to a friend of the Tongs. The house, located on the water, had a pool and provided the perfect respite for their week-long visit. The Tongs hosted a build-your-own Taco Night and also made crabs and rockfish plentiful during the Artzers’ stay.Rodney adds, “Casey reveled in the Eastern Shore fare.”
Elizabeth Tong recalls the fun the two families had making dinner the first night. She states, “We are very grateful the family was willing to come across the country to meet us. It was light and easy and we all got along well. The week was about doing fun things with this new family we were getting to know. It was easy and comfortable.”
Casey, a history buff, enjoyed a trip with his mother to Washington, DC to take in the monuments and the White House. The Tongs organized a picnic and jam session with local musicians, so Casey could play music. Elizabeth adds, “I think the jam session was his favorite event of the week! He is a talented musician.”
Casey Artzer reflects on his visit with the Tongs, stating ” Oh wow! I can’t wait to go back! I had such a great time hanging out with Rodney, Elizabeth, English and Chloe. Their food was amazing, I loved sailing and getting the chance to row with the Chloe’s row team. I was sore for a while after going with English to Cross Fit! And I can’t thank them enough for the jam session. I feel a deep connection to them all, especially Rodney.”
The Tongs noticed how much Casey and Rodney had in common. Rodney notes, “Casey and I had a lot of similarities. I made a real connection with him. He has a wonderful general knowledge and is a very curious person like I am. He ran errands with me and helped me finish a crossword puzzle. He loves to travel like me and for the rest of his life wants to do as many things as he can.”
English Tong, who originally made the connection with the Artzer family and who was only four years old when Hunter died, states, “It made my brother’s life more real. When it’s been so long, it’s easy to feel far removed from him, but having his heart near me again gave me back his existence.”
“The whole thing was unreal, but amazing,” adds Chloe Tong. “I felt a weird instinct of comfort with Casey. It was so amazing to see how he was enjoying life to the fullest. I felt connected almost right away in a way I never have before.”
For Casey’s mother, Kathy Artzer, who says she and the Tongs have always been connected by Hunter’s heart, notes that the two families are now connected by true friendship. She adds, “It’s hard to put in words what this trip meant to me and Casey. I have always kept them in a special place in my heart, but spending time with the whole family was surreal and extraordinary. Rodney, Elizabeth and the girls are all lovely, kind, hilarious and unique, in their own right!”
She reflects, “Giving my family the gift of life 24 years ago was so selfless, during the worst tragedy. It was also wonderful to get the sense of love in the Eastern Shore community, in which the Tongs are a huge part of.”
Elizabeth Tong was a founding member of the Donor Family and Community Advisory Council for the Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC). She continues to be a volunteer WRTC Donate Life Ambassador, speaking at Continuing Education Courses at Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC, sharing with the professionals who work with transplant families that it’s ok to be emotional. She comments, “It’s important for these professionals to hear from a donor mom just how meaningful it is to be able to donate a loved one’s organs. It becomes a gift not only for the recipient, but also for the donor.”
Elizabeth adds, “Meeting Casey and his mother was a very meaningful experience – sort of like collateral beauty. We are no longer strangers. To actually meet Casey was a gift. Now our families are joined. There is a piece of Hunter that is still living and it’s doing good.”
Rodney concludes, “Casey is keeping Hunter alive and Hunter is keeping Casey alive.”
The heart is a beautiful thing.
For information about making the decision to be an organ donor, visit Washington Regional Transplant Community’s website at www.beadonor.org. To see a video about the Tong’s story and their reunion with Casey, visit here.