A mother listened to her late daughter's heart beat again when she hugged the man who received it in a transplant surgery.
Amber Morgan of South Bend, Indiana, lost her 20-year-old daughter Andre’Ona Rae Williams on Dec. 17, 2018, after Williams had an asthma attack and went into cardiac arrest. Williams left behind a brother and a sister.
"Andre’Ona was severely allergic to almost everything," Morgan, 48, tells TODAY.com. "I would have kept her in a bubble if I could."
Williams was a registered organ donor, which Morgan learned after her daughter's death. "That made me a proud mama," she says. "She had a heart of gold."
According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, 60% of the U.S. population are signed up as organ donors. Seventeen people die daily waiting for an organ transplant, officials say; every 10 minutes, a new person is added to the list.
Williams' heart was donated to Tom Johnson, 68, of Kankakee, Illinois.
Johnson had waited for a heart since 2017. A retired respiratory therapist and information technology analyst, he had been diagnosed with a cardiac condition called Idiopathic hypertrophic subaortic stenosis at age 11. In his adult life, Johnson used a pacemaker and a defibrillator, but when he went into congestive heart failure, doctors recommended a heart transplant.
On Dec. 18, 2018, Johnson received a phone call from Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois.
"They said, 'We have a heart for you,'" Johnson tells TODAY.com. The next day, Johnson had a transplant operation. After a bumpy recovery, during which Johnson went into renal and respiratory failure (common complications of heart transplant surgery), he was hospitalized for months. As he improved over the next year, he wondered about the person whose death had saved his life.
With help from the Indiana Donor Network and Loyola University Medical Center, Johnson was able to send a letter to Morgan.
"Many donor families say that contact with one another helps them to know someone is living on because of their loved one," a spokesperson from the Indiana Donor Network tells TODAY.com. "It is important for them to know that the recipient is doing well and taking care of the organ they received. It gives donor families a sense of legacy and that their loved one is not forgotten."
In his letter, Johnson thanked Morgan for her blessing and described his bliss after gathering the strength to play soccer with his grandchildren after the transplant.
Morgan says Johnson's letter was "beautiful."
"I wanted to meet him, but it didn't feel like the right time" amid Johnson's recovery, she says. Then, COVID hit and Morgan herself had a heart attack.
"I finally said, 'This is it, stop putting it off. It's time to meet Tom," she says.
They planned a meeting for November 19 at a Chicago hotel, with Johnson's wife Sharon and Morgan's 6-year-old granddaughter Avery (Williams' niece).
Neither Morgan nor Johnson knew the other had a stethoscope packed in their luggage.
In the hotel lobby, they embraced.
"It felt like our hearts connected," says Johnson. Morgan added, "For a second, it felt like I was hugging Andre’Ona again."
During the two-hour meeting, the new friends got acquainted and talked about Williams. They made summer plans, including a possible visit to The Bean, a Chicago art monument that had been on Williams' bucket list.
"Tom is amazing — he gained another family member," says Morgan.
Johnson says he knows carrying Andre’Ona's heart is a responsibility.
"I'm religious about taking my heart medication," he says. "I am protecting this gift."