ENCINO, California – As a ballplayer, Rod Carew understood the importance of being a good teammate. Now that he’s carrying someone else’s heart and kidney, he’s a teammate of a wildly different sort.
Still, many of the same rules apply, such as doing what’s best for the greater good.
Carew began doing exactly that by holding a news conference Tuesday with his donor’s family to discuss the expansion of his “Heart of 29” campaign. Originally launched to promote heart health, the focus now also includes brain health and organ donation.
The widened approach is a tribute to Konrad Reuland, a former NFL tight end who suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm then died on Dec. 12. Four days later, his organs were transplanted into Carew.
“I’ve got a great partner in Konrad,” Carew said. “He’s given me a strong heart. … Whatever journey I take, he’s going to be right there with me helping me to save other people’s lives.”
Carew launched Heart of 29 with the American Heart Association in 2015 after a heart attack, cardiac arrest and extreme heart failure left him with a machine called a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, keeping him alive. He wanted to use his story – a seemingly healthy man almost struck down – to encourage others to get their hearts checked. He made a difference right away, as former big-league pitcher Clyde Wright was inspired to get a checkup and wound up getting a quadruple bypass.
The campaign name came from the jersey number Carew wore throughout his big-league career. It now carries more meaning as that’s how old Reuland was when he died.
Because Reuland was struck down by a brain injury, and because he’d signed up to become an organ donor just a few months earlier, the new planks to Heart of 29 make perfect sense. So does the fact experts say “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”
Carew and his family have long been organ donors. Their support stems from the 1996 death of his daughter, Michelle, after she was unable to find a match for a bone marrow transplant. She died of leukemia at only 18. At her request, he promoted the need for more bone marrow donors; his impact is honored at the national headquarters of Be The Match and is further reflected in the fact the organization annually presents a Rod Carew Leadership Award.
“Life is a gift from our father upstairs; it’s a very special thing,” Carew said. “You can help somebody else maybe reach their goals in life.”
Reuland and Carew are believed to be first pro athletes to share a heart. Even more amazing is that their paths crossed before: Konrad went to the same small, private middle school as Carew’s children. Their paths crossed at least once, but the families were never more than acquaintances.
Now they proudly consider each other family. They’ve already discussed creating a Christmas card together.
“It’s truly an honor to have a new partnership, a new family, with the Reulands,” said Rhonda Carew, Rod’s wife. “They are absolutely remarkable. I can only imagine Konrad himself mirrored through the Reulands as a whole. … We know we have one grieving family and one elated family. For the grieving family to step forward and really seek this out says a lot about their character. We are so blessed to have this relationship in place and the ability to go out and broaden our platform.”
The Reulands are eager to help, too. It’s what Konrad would’ve wanted, said his mom, Mary, who is using the hope of lives saved to power through her grief.swirling emotions.
“I feel like I’m on a roller coaster of emotions, of course, but I would be anyway,” she said. “I feel like this is a really good way to promote organ donation, heart health and brain health. And to keep my son alive. He died and people still know about him and of him. So for us it’s been comforting.”
She also takes solace knowing that Konrad’s selfless decision will save and improve countless lives through the Heart of 29 campaign. It goes beyond those who receive his organs and tissue. It includes Carew’s family and friends … and his daughter who is expecting his first grandchild in October.
“That baby is going to get to meet Rod, which is wonderful,” she said. “It’s the ripple effect. It’s so far-reaching. It’s not just the (Carew) family, it goes much further than that.”
Tom Mone – chief executive officer of One Legacy, the Southern California outlet of the national Donate Life organ network – noted that April is National Donate Life Month. He said he believes their efforts already have been boosted by the news of this story, which came out Friday. They’ve also established a sign-up page in Reuland’s honor.
“I can talk all day as a policy-wonk, organ-donor professional to get people to understand organ donation. But when donor families and recipients tell of that sharing of life, that moves people across the country to donate life,” Mone said. “I can only thank both of you for being willing to share your story. That will save thousands of more lives.”
Rhonda said she hopes the combined power of these two pro athletes helps propel Heart of 29 and the impact in can have.
“Our goal is to have Major League Baseball adopt Heart of 29 as one of their national charities that all teams subscribe to,” she said. “Hopefully we can get the word out – and now we’re thinking maybe we can do the same thing with the NFL. Our platform is so much broader now.”