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Health & Fitness

Even in death, Amanda's heart keeps giving


Published:   |   Updated: April 13, 2014 at 09:04 AM

TAMPA — March 9, the first anniversary of his daughter's death, and Ronald Pierce was anxious.

He was finally going to meet Garrett Leopold, a skinny, dark-haired 17-year-old who lived in the small Polk County town of Mulberry. Pierce had reached out by text, but the two had never met face to face. Pierce wasn't sure what he would say or how he should act. He had sent the teen a text weeks earlier: “You are part of our family now.”

They met that afternoon at South Tampa's Kate Jackson Park. Pierce brought photo albums with him.

The pictures chronicled the life of his daughter Amanda, who was 18 when she died in a crash as she was driving to Florida State University in Tallahassee to see her sister. Pretty and smart, Amanda had hoped to attend FSU herself.

Leopold brought something of his own. A stethoscope.

In case they wanted to listen to her heart.

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Amanda was a popular senior at Plant High School, where she was involved in the school's chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that pairs students with special-needs children. She also worked with children at after-school programs with the YMCA and St. John's Episcopal School.

She wanted to study special education and was planning to begin her college career at Tallahassee Community College and then transfer to Florida State University.

“That was her passion — working with kids,” said Pierce, who set up a college scholarship in her name at Plant High for a student pursuing a degree in special education.

On March 8, Amanda was driving to Tallahassee when she swerved to avoid traffic backed up because of two previous accidents on the interstate, and her car struck a tree. A friend who was with her was injured but survived the crash.

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Garrett's problems began in the womb.

His heart wasn't fully developed when he was born. Doctors didn't know if he would survive. He had his first heart transplant at 3 months old.

Over time, more problems developed. He suffered from coronary artery disease; doctors told him he would have to have another heart transplant.

In September 2012, he was admitted to UF Health Shands Children's Hospital in Gainesville. For six months, he waited for a heart.

By March, his condition had worsened. The night of Amanda's car crash, March 8, 2013, his heartbeat was erratic, skipping way too many beats.

Amanda died the next day, a Saturday.

Tests were performed. The heart was a match.

Before Amanda's crash, while Garrett was waiting to see if a heart became available before it was too late, a friend had told him that he would get a heart on March 10. The friend was off by a day.

On March 11, doctors put Amanda's heart in Garrett's body.

One teenager had died. Another would live.

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Garrett never liked chocolate milk. But after the surgery, he asked his mother for the flavored milk and drank five small cartons. He later found out Amanda loved chocolate milk.

It was one of the first of the innumerable times since the transplant he thought about the girl whose heart was keeping him alive.

“I'm honored to be able to receive her heart and humbled in so many ways,” Garrett said.

He also felt guilty. Guilty that he was alive because someone had died. Guilty because he got a donated organ but so many of his fellow patients had not.

“Why am I the one who got the transplant? Why not them?”

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The number of people registering to donate organs is rising. Florida has more than 7 million people on the organ, tissue and eye donor registry, the second-largest registry in the country, said Betsy Edwards, a spokeswoman for LifeLink of Florida.

April has been designated National Donate Life Month to encourage people to register to donate their organs, tissues and eyes, and to honor those who have donated.

One donor has the potential of saving up to eight lives, but only a fraction of those who sign up end up donating an organ. Organs don't remain viable for long after death; most come from people who suffer a traumatic brain injury and who don't die until they are in the hospital.

“It's a small number when you look at the big picture,” said Kathy Giery, the director of donor program development at LifeQuest Organ Recovery Services in Gainesville.

In Florida, the waiting list for organ donation is about 5,500 people. Nationally, it's more than 120,000.

“The available organs for transplants can't keep up with the national transplant waiting list,” Edwards said.

In 2006, the organ donation community began a campaign focused on the state registries, Giery said. In Florida, people can register online or at a driver's license office.

Seven years ago, when the campaign began, an estimated 60 million people in the country were registered as organ donors. Today, the number is about 115 million, Giery said.

“Year by year, it has continued to grow,” Giery said.

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Not long after the transplant, Amanda's sister, Jessica, reached out to Garrett through his older sister. She wanted to know how he was doing — how her sister's heart was doing. She knew transplants sometimes didn't take, that the recipient's body would reject an organ from someone else.

Garrett wasn't ready to meet. He was weak physically and, emotionally, he hadn't processed everything.

“You don't want to reach out too soon when it's too early,” said Garrett, who lives in Mulberry with his parents and siblings. “You don't want to embrace something too soon.”

Weeks passed.

In early July, he sent a text message to Jessica Pierce thanking her and her family for the gift of life. He followed the family on Facebook and began to learn about the young woman whose heart he was carrying.

Months passed.

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The families agreed to meet on March 9, the anniversary of Amanda's death. Like Ronald Pierce, Garrett was nervous as he arrived at the park. The feeling didn't last long.

When they met, Garrett's mother, without a word, gave Jessica Pierce a warm hug.

“Five minutes after meeting them I remember thinking my family is about to expand,” Garrett said. “It's a pretty incredible feeling.”

That day, the families talked for hours. The Pierces told Garrett and his mother everything they could about Amanda. The Leopolds told about the months Garrett had waited at the hospital for a donor.

Pierce was drawn back to years past at Kate Jackson Park, where he used to take his daughters to play when they were growing up on Davis Islands.

“He's a good kid,” said Pierce, 60, who lives in St. Petersburg and is an optometrist at a Pearle Vision office in Brandon. “I consider him my son now.”

“When you get a tragedy like this, you've got to look at the positives,” he said. “The way things went down, things happen for a reason.''

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In his optometry office, Pierce's walls are filled with music memorabilia, including autographs, album covers and photos from the rock bands Yes, Moody Blues and Boston. A wooden desk that belonged to Amanda sits against an office wall.

He first reached out to Garrett on Christmas Eve, sending him a message and an autographed photo of Slash, the rocker most noted for his time as lead guitarist for Guns N' Roses. Garrett, who plays guitar, is a fan of Slash.

Pierce wants to take Garrett to his first rock show, maybe this summer when Slash will be touring with Aerosmith. A pilot, he would like to take Garrett flying. He can see the two of them catching a Lightning game or watching the Rays.

“There's a connection with him,” Pierce said. “Part of my daughter is living on right now.”

The rest of the Pierce family wants to keep the connection with Garrett going, too.

“We are seeing the good coming out of it, too,” said Jessica Pierce, 20, a junior at Florida State University. “This boy wouldn't be alive today if he hadn't gotten the heart when he did. We don't take that lightly.”

Amanda's mother, Laurie Pierce, spent more than six hours with Garrett at her Tampa home on March 11. She listened to her daughter's heart with Garrett's stethoscope.

This weekend, they planned to go to a dance marathon at the University of Florida to raise money for pediatric hospitals. It's the first of many events they plan to do together, she said.

“I could not handpick a better recipient,” Laurie Pierce said. “He is worthy. He is deserving. He is a beautiful young man.”

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Every month on the ninth day, Ronald Pierce visits his daughter's grave at Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Tampa.

“It's the biggest (loss),” Ronald Pierce said. “You can lose a parent. You can lose a spouse. It's completely different if you lose a kid.”

Knowing his daughter gave life to someone else helps, he said. He draws strength through Garrett. He says he often sees signs from his daughter.

“I feel she's told me she's OK,” said Ronald Pierce, who remarried several years ago and has a 4-year-old son with his wife, Tamra Pierce.

On Amanda's 19th birthday in October, he visited the cemetery with his family and some of Amanda's friends. They released balloons; when they flew out of sight, his wife and daughter called him over. A heart-shaped cloud had formed. He knows she got the balloons, he said.

“I don't fear death,” Ronald Pierce said. “Not at all. I know when my time comes, I know who I'm going to meet.”

He takes comfort that his daughter's heart is still beating and that he has a new friend in Garrett.

“It's surreal,” Ronald Pierce said. “It is one of those things you can never imagine the position you would be in. To know that the heart went to a good purpose, to a good kid, and didn't go to waste. There was a purpose to Amanda.”

jpatino@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7659

Twitter: @jpatinoTBO

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