A new life soothes the pain over one that was lost Parents of heart donor find solace

November 20, 1992|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Staff Writer

On the kind of crisp, autumn day that Derek Kleckner would have loved, his parents finally summoned up the courage to meet the young woman to whom they had given a very special gift: their 18-year-old son's heart.

It was a heart, his parents recall, that had loved surfing and motorcycles; a heart that had a special place in it for stray animals; a heart that had a tender spot for children; a high-spirited heart that wanted to experience everything and didn't believe in wasting time.

"Actually, Derek was the kind of boy who never wanted anything to go to waste," says his mother, Brenda Kleckner. "He was always after people, saying, 'You shouldn't waste this; you should use it.' "

There are painful emotions stirring beneath such memories, and now one breaks through for Brenda.

Early summer, four years ago: It's five days after Derek's motorcycle accident, and Brenda is standing in the neurological critical care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital saying goodbye to her unconscious son. The doctors have told Brenda and her husband, Denny, that their only child is brain-dead. Within hours, he is to be taken off the machines keeping him alive. She bends to kiss Derek for the last time and then puts her hand over his beating heart.

"This is not going to die," the mother vows. "It's going to be beating in somebody else's body."

Brenda Kleckner bade her last farewell to the blonde, blue-eyed youth from Frederick at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 17, 1988.

By 9:15 that night, Derek Kleckner's heart had found its new home: in blonde, blue-eyed, 18-year-old Laurel Wheeler of Aberdeen. Her heart, at the time of the transplant, was functioning at 12 percent of its healthy capacity.

Four years have gone by since that night and still the Kleckners had never met Laurel, who is 22 now. They have corresponded and talked on the phone, but something always stopped Brenda and Denny from taking the final step of meeting her face-to-face. It was not anything they could put into words -- although such disparate words as finality, hope, sadness and happiness come to mind when imagining such a meeting -- it was more a sense that the right time had not yet presented itself.

Then something happened that signaled it was time for them to meet. On Oct. 13, Laurel Wheeler gave birth to Lacey Jo. When Denny heard the news of the girl's birth, he told Brenda and said, "Maybe we can be adoptive grandparents to her."

Although it has taken the Kleckners four years to make this two-hour trip from Frederick to Aberdeen, they are about to meet Laurel and her baby. She is waiting for them at the front door, holding the month-old baby in her arms.

Laurel is the first to break the silence. "This is Lacey Jo," she says. She is also the first to break down. "Do you want to hold Lacey Jo?" she asks, the tears flooding out of her eyes as she hands the baby to Brenda. Laurel knows this is the closest the Kleckners will ever come to being grandparents.

Brenda and Denny know it, too.

But Laurel also knows how much the mother and father standing before her have lost. And how much she has gained from that loss. Out of earshot of Laurel, her mother, Judith Wheeler, tells Denny, "Laurel was so worried about this meeting. She wants so much for you to feel she's worthy."

"We decided that a long time ago," Denny says in his straightforward way.

Seasons of the heart

Nationwide, there have been reports of only 10 babies born to heart transplant recipients, and Laurel's story made the newspapers and television.

Brenda and Denny were happy for Laurel and gratified that their son's heart had made two lives possible. But something else was stirring inside them. It seems that in the seasons of the heart, Lacey Jo's birth had the feeling of spring: Brenda and Denny experienced a sense of renewal and hope, a sense that Derek was still present in the world. And suddenly the parents felt they owed their son a chance to step out of the shadows.

"We think it's time Derek went from being an anonymous donor to somebody people can identify with," says Brenda.

Until today, only family members and a few friends knew the name of the youth who gave Laurel -- and now Lacey Jo -- the gift of his heart. And until today, Brenda and Denny Kleckner were content to know their son's death had not been meaningless, that the donation of his heart -- as well as his kidneys, corneas and liver -- had allowed others to live. But now they agree that perhaps the telling of Derek's story will help other parents who have to make hard decisions in terrible circumstances.

But there's something else. His family and friends feel it's important to remember Derek's life as well as his death.

What his aunt, Sylvia Boone, remembers most about Derek is his tremendous curiosity about the world. "I don't think he was afraid to try anything," she says. "One time when he was 3 years old and had broken his arm, he was on a camping trip and they found him using the cast on his arm as a hammer to drive in the tent stakes."

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