GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Two families bound together by a lifesaving donation met for the first time Friday at the Spectrum Health Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids.

It’s been more than three years since Chris Kowalski’s heart transplant, the operation happening just a few days after donor Cody Baron, 24, died.

For Cody’s family, meeting Kowalski was emotional. Cody’s mother, Wendy Smith, used a stethoscope to listen to her son’s heartbeat inside Kowalski’s chest. 

She said she takes comfort knowing his heart is still beating.

“When it first happens, it’s this tragic thing and you’re so shocked and you just lost somebody and you don’t want to let go of any of them,” Smith said. “So I understand sometimes how people would be reluctant, but if you give that gift, it’s so healing … knowing that part of him is in there.” 

Cody’s brother, Nic Baron, shares that same feeling.  

“Knowing that there’s pieces of him still around in a way makes me think that he’s still around,” Nic said.

Kowalski and his family expressed their deepest gratitude to Cody’s family.

Kowalski received the transplant after years of suffering from congestive heart failure and the dozens of complications that came with it. 

“There are no words for it and to make me speechless is quite impressive,” Kowalski said. “…I live for two.” 

The families agreed to share their story in hopes it will inspire others to become organ donors. 

“Giving a gift of life is really as simple as checking a box at the Secretary of State,” Baron said. “There’s a lot of comfort we get from that knowing that the sacrifice Cody made was just by checking a box.” 

As a donor, Cody gave 117 “gifts of life,” including all eight major organs. Smith said 57 of those gifts have been given to recipients with zero rejections.  


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