A Real Heart to Heart

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On Monday, April 22, Megan Erickson got to hear something special for the first time in more than two and a half years—her husband’s heartbeat. After Erickson’s husband, John, tragically died in 2016, his organs were donated to give others the gift of life, and his heart found a new home in the chest of Robert Pascarelli, who with the use of a stethoscope, allowed Erickson to connect with her husband again.

According to Erickson, of Howard Beach, John’s heart was certainly a big one. “He was a good person. He was very giving, very caring and always wanting to help people,” she said. For instance, although the family lived in mainland Queens, Erickson says following Hurricane Sandy, John, who worked in construction, gave much of his time helping those in Rockaway to reconstruct and raise their homes.

With such a big heart, for John, being an organ donor was a no-brainer. Originally from Long Island, the Ericksons moved to Forest Hills, Queens, so John could be closer to Manhattan, where he worked his main job as a union sandhog in the subways. With the move, a trip to the DMV to change addresses was in order and that tedious task led John to make a life-changing decision. “I noticed he wasn’t an organ donor and he just didn’t realize he could be one, so I mentioned it to him while we were at the DMV and he checked off the box, no questions asked,” Erickson said. Little did they know that decision would become vital sooner than later.

In September 2016, Erickson’s younger brother died tragically in a motorcycle accident just a few months after she lost her father, who died from a longtime illness. John offered to step up and help his wife take care of the funeral arrangements for her brother in Long Island. On September 16, 2016, the night before the wake, John was on the phone with his wife while walking across Route 110 in Melville, when he was stuck by a car. Erickson, just 20 minutes away, didn’t realize at the time how serious the accident was until she arrived and her husband was airlifted to Stony Brook Hospital. John Erickson was pronounced dead on September 18, 2016. He was 34.

Just across the Long Island Sound, in Norwalk, Ct., Robert Pascarelli, a retired engineer and police officer, was holding on to hope for a new lease at life. Pascarelli had been dealing with heart issues since suffering his first heart attack in 1990. With his heart operating at 10 percent functionality by 2016, a transplant was his last hope. He had been waiting in a hospital for a transplant for seven months when on a September night at 1 a.m., a nurse told him that a match was available—John Erickson’s heart.

Through checking off that box to be an organ donor, John Erickson was able to save the lives of at least four people. One kidney went to a 10-year-old girl; another to a man in his mid-twenties. His liver went to a woman in her 50s and John’s heart, found a place to beat in the chest of Pascarelli, in his 60s.

Working with LiveOnNY, a federally designated nonprofit that oversees organ donation and transplants in the greater New York area, Pascarelli was able to give Megan Erickson and John’s mother, Donna, the opportunity to hear John’s heart once again. Following the transplant, Erickson agreed to have contact with those who received John’s organs, and Pascarelli was eager to meet the family of his donor. On April 22, in LiveOnNY's Manhattan office, the Erickson family got to meet the man who holds John’s heart.

Without having previously met, both Erickson and Pascarelli say they just knew who each other was the second they walked into the room. “I felt John’s presence immediately,” Erickson said. “When I walked into that room, my body went right to Megan. It was like John was pushing my legs right towards her,” Pascarelli said. “When the guy walked in, I had a breakdown crying. I’m a strong person, but when he came in and hugged me, I just bawled and let go. I needed that cry and him hugging me brought such a feeling of both sorrow and happiness at the same time,” Erickson said.

Following the initial emotions of their first encounter, Pascarelli placed a stethoscope to his chest, allowing John’s mother, Donna, and his wife, Megan, to hear that vital piece of John once again. “I can’t even describe the feeling,” Megan said. “It’s just such a beautiful thing to know that John’s living on, even though that means he’s not here physically, but living through someone else.”

Erickson says she’s made a special connection with the man who carries her late love’s heart. “He feels like a father figure to me. I lost my father so soon before my husband died and it’s like I have that father figure now to talk to again. He’s the nicest guy ever. I couldn’t have asked for someone better to receive John’s heart,” Erickson said, adding that she plans to stay in touch with Pascarelli.

Since receiving John’s heart more than two years ago, Pascarelli says his health has improved immensely. “I feel like a 35-year-old guy from the waist up. My legs still have problems, but my heart is strong,” he said.

For Pascarelli, meeting the family of his donor was very important. “I thought it would be a blessing for them to hear his heart and I wanted to meet them,” he said, adding that he’s still reflecting on the whole experience. “It was so touching. I’ll never forget that day. I’m still shaking from it. Megan gave me some pictures of John and now his picture is right there as you walk in the door of my house. Every morning, I wake up and say good morning to him,” Pascarelli said. Pascarelli also mentioned that now he and his whole family have since registered as organ donors themselves.

Although a story that begins with sadness, Erickson says knowing that John is living on in some way, brings a sense of comfort. “Knowing that he was able to save four lives is incredible. It’s such a beautiful thing to know that something so tragic could end in a beautiful way,” she said.

According to LiveOnNY, there are more than 113,600 people on national waiting lists for organs. Currently, New York state ranks dead last in the nation for the percentage of residents that are registered as organ donors, and nearly 10,000 people are awaiting a transplant in NY. The next time you visit the DMV, consider checking off that box. To find out more about organ donation, visit www.liveonny.org.

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