Mary Reuland still remembers the day almost 20 years ago that her son Konrad came home from school after meeting Hall of Fame baseball player Rod Carew.
Konrad, who was 11 at the time, couldn’t stop talking about it.
“‘You know I met Rod Carew!’” Mary recalls him saying over and over again. “That’s how it was the whole rest of the day. It was really kind of cute.”
Like most kids, Konrad had hopes of becoming a professional athlete, and meeting a former Major League Baseball star made the dream seem just a little more feasible.
“For him to meet a pro athlete at that age, it was like the best thing that could happen to him,” Mary said.
Carew made an impact on Konrad in that one brief encounter. Konrad would go on to become a standout football star who shined in high school, then played at Stanford and for four NFL teams.
But nobody could imagine the difference that 11-year-old boy would one day make in the life of the Hall of Fame baseball player.
The Ravens had just dropped a disappointing game to the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football in December of last year. Baltimore failed to mount a late-game comeback, and the 30-23 loss dealt a significant blow to its playoff chances. When Head Coach John Harbaugh stepped to the microphone for his post-game press conference, he started with an announcement that had nothing to do with football.
Konrad, just 29 years old, had died earlier that day after suffering a brain aneurysm two weeks prior.
“We lost a Raven today,” Harbaugh said, before reading a passage out of Psalms. “We love Konrad Reuland.”
The news both shocked, and brought a sobering perspective to the Ravens locker room.
Ravens Chaplain Johnny Shelton, who received the devastating news in a text at halftime from Mary, shared the news with Harbaugh after the game. Offensive lineman John Urschel, who typically roomed with Konrad on road trips, told some teammates and word quickly spread through the locker room.
Harbaugh then announced to the team that Konrad had died.
“It resonated with everyone,” Shelton said. “It took that game, literally as it was – just a game. But we lost a close friend. You could feel it in the room.”
Konrad’s death was shocking on many levels. He was so young. He was completely healthy. He had played in NFL preseason games just three months earlier. He was actually training to stay ready in case an NFL team called and needed a tight end on short notice.
He was living and training in his hometown in Southern California, and a benefit of being out of the NFL was that he finally got to spend Thanksgiving with family. It was the first time in nine years that he had a Thanksgiving at home.
His younger brothers, Warren and Austin, were both in town, and they spent all day together on Wednesday. The family ate a traditional Thanksgiving meal on Thursday and then went to dinner and a movie on Friday. They started putting up Christmas decorations Saturday morning and Konrad went to the gym to get in a workout.
About 40 minutes later, Konrad called home and told his parents he felt a click in his head and suddenly had a crushing headache. Even though Konrad was walking and talking, his father Ralf, a physician, suggested getting him to the emergency room just to rule out the possibility of anything serious.
Soon after Konrad arrived at the hospital, doctors determined he had an aneurysm. He laid in a hospital bed and was immediately transferred to UCLA Medical Center by ambulance. He never stood up again.
“Our lives changed dramatically at that moment,” Mary said.
For the next three days, Konrad was aware and coherent. The incident had certainly shaken him, but he could talk and lift his legs. He was still confident he could recover and his family stayed by his side virtually around the clock. His family wanted to provide constant encouragement and his mom gave him a passionate talk one night.
The next morning at 6:47, Konrad wrote a text to his mother:
It was the last text he would ever send his mom.
While the entire family was in his hospital room later that week, Konrad said he was tired and needed some rest. He suggested that his parents and brothers go out for dinner, and then they could all come back later and spend more time together.
Soon after the family arrived at the restaurant they received a phone call that something had gone wrong. Konrad had told the nurse that he had an incredibly painful headache and within five minutes it was clear he needed immediate attention. Nurses rolled his bed to the emergency room and he underwent a 17-hour surgery.
“He came out and we thought, ‘He has a chance of making it,’” Mary said.
The optimism didn’t last long and he soon took a turn for the worse. His organs began to fail, and he developed pneumonia and an infection in the lungs. Doctors made the decision to put Konrad in a prone bed, where he was in a face down position in an attempt to clear out his lungs.
But then his head began to swell and it became clear he wasn’t going to survive.
Knowing time was short, the family asked if Konrad could be removed from the prone bed and turned on his back so family members could say their goodbyes. About 40 minutes later, the doctor told the family that Konrad’s lung function had shockingly started to return. Irreparable damage had already been done to his brain, but oxygen had returned to his organs.
“They came out and they were just dumbfounded,” Ralf said. “That event allowed his organs to survive.”
Reuland was ultimately pronounced dead on Dec. 12, just about the time the Ravens were kicking off their Monday Night Football game against the Patriots.
As the Reulands grieved, Rod Carew waited.
The seven-time American League batting champion and first-ballot Hall of Famer was in a hospital bed, dealing with life-threatening complications from a heart attack he initially sustained on Sept. 20, 2015. Carew had been living for more than a year with a device implanted in his heart that kept it functioning, but a series of problems had occurred and doctors determined that Carew needed a transplant.
Carew was put on the transplant list in November, and his condition reached a point severe enough to move him to the top of the list on Dec. 9, 2016.
Unbeknownst to Carew, Konrad Reuland, a little boy he had met nearly 20 years earlier, died three days later.
Two days after that, Carew received the call he had been waiting for – he would be getting a new heart and kidney. He underwent a 13-hour procedure to receive the transplants.
The surgery was a success, and the Carews were eternally grateful to the man whose heart and kidney Rod had received. Rod’s wife, Rhonda, had friends who had seen the news of Reuland’s death and asked her if that was the heart he received, but they had no way of knowing.
The Carews initially had no information about the donor other than the man’s age. But that detail alone was enough to leave them in awe. Rod’s campaign to fight heart disease was called the Heart of 29, in honor of the number he wore throughout his baseball career.
They didn’t know it at the time, but he had, in fact, received the heart of 29-year-old Konrad.
More than 1,000 people attended Konrad’s funeral in southern California. At the funeral, dozens of guests asked Mary the same question: “Do you think it’s Rod Carew?”
She had no idea what they meant.
“It was like this lightning bolt went through me,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on in the world. I was just focusing on the little bubble of my son’s hospital room.”
Friends and family shared the news reports that Carew had received a heart and kidney transplant from a 29-year-old male donor who died at the UCLA Medical Center. Carew received the transplant four days after Konrad’s death.
After the funeral, Mary started her own research. She read news articles online and noted that the circumstances had to be more than a coincidence.
Carew, 71, had received heart and kidney transplants from an exceptionally healthy 29-year-old man. The Reulands had been told that his left kidney and his heart went to a 71-year-old man in Southern California. Carew was a patient at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, less than five miles away from where Reuland died.
“Everybody was connecting the dots,” Mary said.
The family was virtually certain that Carew was the recipient. The circumstances were just too clear to miss. But they couldn’t know for sure until they received official confirmation from the donation company. Families of organ donors are encouraged to wait at least a year before initiating contact with a recipient, allowing time for grieving and healing, but the Reulands couldn’t ignore the facts in front of them.
“We needed to know for our sake if it was really true,” Mary said.
She called the donation company and they confirmed it. Carew had received Konrad’s heart and kidney.
Mary spent the last few hours of her son’s life sitting next to his bed. She knew his time was limited.
“I had laid my right ear on his heart all day and just listened to his heartbeat,” Mary said. “When we left him for the last time I said, ‘Whoever gets his heart better deserve his heart because it was a good one.’”
Konrad’s other kidney went to a woman in her 60s in Southern California. His liver went to a man in his 50s. As much as the family grieved the loss, they took some solace in knowing that Konrad lives on and saved other lives.
A few days after the funeral, Mary was grappling with the loss of her son.
“I was sitting at home, still numb, and I was praying, ‘Please give me a sign. Let me know that you’re OK,’” she recalls.
Within minutes, Mary received a text. A family friend was at the cemetery setting up a nativity scene when he realized something remarkable on Konrad’s grave site. A single beam of light was shining through the clouds, directly onto his grave, right at the spot where his heart would be.
“He looked around and said there were no beams of light anywhere else,” she said. “It was just right there, on Konrad. It was pretty incredible.”
In the weeks following Konrad’s death, the family started an endowment in his name through Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Mary also decided to reach out to the Carew family. She connected with Rhonda, and they bonded almost immediately. They talked over the phone on several occasions and realized they have been closer than they ever knew. Their children went to the same grade school and the Carews remembered Konrad and his brothers from all of their success on the football field and basketball court.
They decided they wanted to meet in person. Mary and Ralf wanted another opportunity to listen to their son’s heartbeat. Rod was released from the hospital on Feb. 14, and the Reulands invited Rod and his family to their home on March 2.
Mary and Ralf had no idea how they would react to the emotions of the meeting. They were less than three months removed from losing their oldest child, and they knew the encounter would be raw. But when Mary first saw Rod outside her home, she greeted him warmly with a big hug and said, “You’re part of our family now.”
“Forever,” Rod replied. “I will take care of this one because I’ve been given a second chance, and God knows how I feel and what I’m going to do for him.”
As the families shared hugs and tears, Mary was reminded of what she told the doctors before leaving Konrad’s hospital room for the last time: Whoever gets his heart better deserve it.
“We lost a wonderful man, so it had to go into a wonderful person,” Mary told Rod. “I couldn’t be happier that it went to such a wonderful man.”
The families went inside and sat with each other on the couch, and Rod asked Mary if she wanted to listen to Konrad’s heartbeat “to see how beautiful it sounds.” Before putting the stethoscope to Rod’s chest, she told the Carews that she learned every person has a unique heartbeat. She had Konrad’s memorized.
Mary, Ralf and Austin each took turns listening to Konrad’s heart. Ralf listened silently for about 30 seconds. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and reached his arms around Carew to embrace him with a big hug.
He then looked at Carew’s chest and said, “Welcome home, Konrad.”
Individuals looking to give the gift of life through organ donation can do so through the Living Legacy Foundation