The Heart of It by Amelia Blades Steward

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Seven years ago, in the summer of 2010, English Tong was driving home from college in Arizona to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She always tried to stay with friends and family whenever she could while road tripping. She wanted to split the drive into at least two days so she asked her parents if they knew anyone between Colorado and Maryland. English’s father had a suggestion, but not one she could have imagined.

Pictured left to right are the Tong children: Hunter Tong, Chloe Tong, and English Tong

Seventeen years earlier, English, her sister Chloe, and her parents, Rodney and Elizabeth Tong of Royal Oak, lost their brother and son, Hunter Tong, age two and one half, to an unexpected death. Hunter’s parents chose to donate Hunter’s organs. English’s father was suggesting that English stop in Topeka, Kansas on her way home and meet the family whose son received Hunter’s heart.

In honor of the 24th anniversary of her brother’s death, English wanted to tell the story of her meeting the young man who got her brother’s heart– Casey Artzer. She writes in her blog entry of March 9, 2017 for Sniglet Writings, “This is not a story of how my brother died, but of the life he brought after his death. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for my parents to not only decide to donate his heart, but continue contact with the recipient’s family still to this day.”

Once English’s blog was published, Casey and his mother, read it and discussed it. Casey said he was ready to meet the whole family and reached out to them to set up a meeting this June at the Tong’s home.

Pictured is a painting of Hunter’s shoes done by artists Wendy Van Nest.

Elizabeth Tong states, “For me, meeting Casey has to be emotionally assimilated, it has even affected me physically. We received letters from each of Casey’s parents on the first anniversary of Hunter’s death, but I was unable to respond to them for seven years. After that, we have kept in touch at Christmas time through Christmas cards and notes, but we haven’t really talked.”

The Tong’s story begins on the night of Rodney Tong’s 40th birthday party in 1993. Hunter played long and hard with all the children in attendance at the birthday party. After Hunter woke up at 7 a.m. the next morning a little fussy, Rodney recalls rocking him back to sleep. At mid-morning, Elizabeth decided to wake him up and he was limp in her arms. Once at Memorial Hospital in Easton, the decision was made to fly him to Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC where Hunter was placed in intensive care. At this point, Rodney and Elizabeth both knew Hunter’s condition was serious, but they didn’t know what was wrong.

Rodney recalls, “On Sunday his brain scan was normal, but doctors were treating him for seizures and trying to figure the cause of the problem. Monday, the doctors discovered that Hunter’s brain was swelling and things had turned for the worse. At that point, the doctors told us that the damage to Hunter’s brain would most likely be fatal.”

Pictured is a painting by Nancy Tankersley of Elizabeth Tong with Hunter.

Elizabeth desperately clung to the words “most likely,” but not for long as the doctor in attendance that afternoon only shook his head and looked away when she tried to convince him that it was only “most likely,” in other words not fatal yet, leaving her the slightest glimmer of hope. Elizabeth remembers, “I can only assume, that was their way of gently giving us the real news, that Hunter was dying and there was nothing that could be done.”

At that point, shock took over, the kind of shock that consumes a person facing the worst kind of news. Elizabeth likens it to a time release capsule, allowing reality in only so often and only in amounts one can take. This shock allowed Elizabeth and Rodney to put one foot in front of the other and later to broach the subject of organ donation. As soon as it was raised, the wheels of donation were immediately set into motion.

The family had to wait from Monday through Wednesday for the drugs to get out of Hunter’s system in order for the doctors to pronounce him dead. This gave English and other family members and friends time to come to Washington to say good-bye. The doctors never were able to tell the Tongs the cause of Hunter’s death.

When asked whether she needed a medical explanation for what caused Hunter’s death, Elizabeth comments about her son, “I don’t need a name for what happened to Hunter. Hunter came and did what he was supposed to do and left us very gently.” She adds thoughtfully, “It’s been a good thing to transplant his organs – it’s something beneficial coming out of something so horrific. A piece of him went on.”

On March 10, 1993, Hunter Tong died. The next day, Casey Artzer from Kansas, got a new heart.

Lisa Colaianni, Donor Family Advocate with The Washington Regional Transplant Community, who met the Tongs after the donation and who has become a family friend, comments, “I can’t imagine trying to think of others while going through such a tragedy as the Tongs experienced. Twenty-one people die every day needing an organ transplant. They gave the ultimate gift of life to another boy and that provided them with hope in their despair. Today, we have a 25-year old who is alive because of Hunter’s donation.”

Pictured is Hunter doing what he loved to do most, snuggling with his sister Chloe

For sisters Chloe and English, the memories are scant of their brother Hunter. English can only remember bits and pieces of Hunter, so for her, Casey makes him real. Family videos of Hunter following English around and mimicking her actions prove the special bond they had. Chloe was only four months old when Hunter died. According to Elizabeth, however, Chloe and Hunter had a special connection as well. He proudly announced to everyone who called, “new baby,” referring to his new little sister. He constantly wanted to be next to her and touching her.
Chloe comments, “I had questions about Hunter as I grew up. I identified with qualities of him as I grew up, always trying to help my dad do things a boy would do because he had lost a son.”

Rodney recalls the rich relationship he had with his son, if only for a short time. He states, “I was able to spend quality time with him because I was doing carpentry work at the time. He loved to be with me on jobs. He had work boots to wear when he went with me. I have a memory of building a railing on our steps and Hunter figured out at age two what screws went into what holes. He would pick up tools and ask what they were.”

He adds, “He loved mechanical things – cars, back hoes, and mechanic shops. He loved being with me when I was doing things and adored being with my father, who was a builder by trade.

He made toys for Hunter out of scraps of wood and fixed things.”
Elizabeth recalls Hunter as being very attached to family and not wanting to leave his mom to go to preschool. She states, “He would always say about doing new things, ‘When mine gets older.’”

English writes in her blog about meeting Casey,

“The family asked me to meet them at his high school, where he would be performing in his school band, playing the saxophone. I remember being really picky about what I wore (a striped grey and green sweater, black skinny jeans) and trying really hard to focus on my driving over there. I walked into an empty entrance way to the school, more nervous than I had ever been in my life. Having no idea where I was supposed to go, I started to panic a bit, when a short, blonde, friendly face came racing up to me, wrapping her arms around me. His mother had been waiting for my arrival outside of the auditorium, and all of a sudden I was surrounded with so many enthusiastic greetings and smiles and hugs from his older sister and father.

Pictured is a painting by Tankersley of Rodney Tong with Hunter.

The first time I ever saw, in person, the man carrying my brother’s heart, was on that stage with a saxophone. If I remember correctly, he performed last, with a large group of other seniors.

After the show, we moved out into the lobby, waiting for him, and his younger sister, to join us. So many people approached and introduced themselves to me, commenting on how amazing this was and that I needed a camera crew following me. All I could think about was how I was going to react to shaking his hand, looking him in the eye, and hearing his voice. The poor guy was probably more overwhelmed than I, so I tried not to scare him by bursting into tears or wrapping my arms around him too tightly. He was just so sweet, soft, and obviously nervous, for good reason.

Once finished, the family took me to dinner. There were quite a few people with us, so it was a large group. I remember eating some kind of chicken wrap and stumbling over questions I had for him about his life and interests. One thing I definitely remember is never wanting the night to end, as it had given me a high I had never felt before, nor since.”

While the family members’ reactions have each been different, each family member is approaching the June 13 meeting of Casey with great anticipation. The week Casey and his family are here, the Tongs are planning a musical gathering with friends because of Casey’s own musical interests. English recalls her memory of Casey, stating, “Casey is a quiet and reserved person.

He is into alternative things like our family – a more liberal person, I think, and one who thinks outside of the box.”

Elizabeth adds, “I have thought about a bit of our son coming home. I haven’t wrapped my head around that yet. All of us want it to be as gentle and natural as possible for Casey. We want him to get to know us and for our meeting to be as organic as possible.”

For Chloe, who perhaps knew Hunter the least, but who had a special bond with her brother, comments, “I have always wanted to meet Casey. I was angry I hadn’t met him sooner. It’s so cool that it is such a major organ that was transplanted from my brother.”

Rodney tries to grasp the upcoming meeting, stating “Our son is dead but he’s not – his major organ is still beating. I want to hear his heartbeat when I meet Casey. I want to put my ear next to his heart.”

Lisa states, “It is highly unusual to have a meeting between a donor family and a recipient 24 years later. Most meetings like this happen within the first five years of the transplant.” She adds, “What I love about this story is the sibling side of it, which is not told that often. The fact that English met the recipient and then wrote the blog, which went everywhere, and ultimately reached the family, is very unique.” She adds, “The Tongs understood from the very beginning the importance of telling their story so that others may register to become donors.”

At the end of her blog, English writes, “Oh, and one last little detail, the one I tend to leave out and only recently revealed to my parents. The last song he and his band played that night on the stage where I first saw him? My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion.”

To read English Tong’s blog, visit http://snigletwritings.blogspot.com/2017/03/the-tornado-going-on-outside.html?spref=fb. For information about making the decision to be an organ donor, visit Washington Regional Transplant Community’s website at www.beadonor.org.

Letters to Editor

  1. Wendy VanNest says:

    Thank you for your generosity in telling your story, English (with your gentle help, Amy). We are grateful to know your extraordinary family.

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