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US mum meets with man who received son's heart after recognising him on TV

·5-min read

A grieving mum recognised a stranger on TV as the man who received her son's heart and rushed to him to feel his heartbeat - now they consider each other as family and speak every day.

Valerie Stebel, 45, lost her son, Cody, 20, from severe injuries he suffered in a car accident just months after he had passed his driving test in May 2017.

Cody made the decision to donate his organs - and his family were told his liver, lungs, kidneys, skin and heart had gone on to save the lives of six people - including a three year old girl who had been burnt in a fire and a man in his 50s. 

The family only knew the first name of the man who had received Cody's heart - Gene - after he sent them a letter in September 2017 saying he was thankful for the gift and wanted to meet us.

Valerie was watching a local news report on November 22 2017 when she spotted a man, named Gene, being interviewed about a 5k run he was doing just six months post heart transplant. 

Valerie instantly 'knew' he was the man who had received Cody's heart - and rushed to Aurora, where the news report was being filmed.

Valerie - along with 15 other members of Cody's family including his brother Jakob, 18, and father David, 48, arrived at Aurora, Ohio the next morning - when the run was taking place - and tracked down Gene. 

She told him: 'thank you' and embraced Gene Shimandle, 65, before pressing her ear to his chest to hear her son's heart continuing to beat. 

Since the emotional moment, which was captured by their local news station, Gene and Cody's family have built a very close bond - considering each other extended family.

Valerie, an administrative assistant to Huron County Commissioners, from Norwalk, Ohio, US, said: "It was Cody's wishes to donate his organs.

"When we got the letter from Gene it was a emotional and made me realise Cody didn't die in vain.

"His decision saved this person's life.

"Seeing Gene on the news a few months later I knew it was him.

"I said 'He's got Cody's heart.'

"We contact the TV company and then went to meet Gene the next day at his run.

"I went up to Gene and just said thank you and started crying.

"Then he asked if I wanted to listen to Cody's heart and hearing it I just broke down.

"It was unreal.

"I knew Cody was still here."

Gene, a retired paramedic, from Aurora, Ohio, US, said: "I had been on the waiting list for 12 years so Cody's heart was a massive gift for me - it literally saved my life. 

"Valerie told me all about her son and showed me his picture.

"He was the most incredible young man.

"I feel so lucky that his heart has given me a chance at a new lease of life.

"It feels very special to have a piece of Cody - and know who he was. His family are my family now." 

Gene - who is a dad of four- had been on the waiting list for 12 years after being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure in 2005. 

He spent the next years in pain and battling with surgically installed heart pumps to keep him alive.

He was shocked to receive a donor match in May 2017 and underwent a 14 hour operation on 7 May 2017 at Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, which he says has given him a new lease of life.

"It's all anonymous in the US so all I could do was send a letter to my donor's family and I just put my first name at the end," Gene said. 

"Six months later I decided to run a 5k race with the nurses and the local news team got in touch wanting to cover it.

"It was sheer luck that Valerie and her family happened to watch it and put two and two together."

The emotional moment was captured on TV as Gene and Valerie embrace and she used a stethoscope to listen to her son's heart beating inside Gene's chest.

"That's his heart," Valerie said on what she thought the moment she listened.

"It felt like Cody was still here, just living in Gene."

Gene said: "Valerie showed me a photo of Cody with his donor card and licence - which he'd received just months before the fatal crash.

"After hearing about him, I feel even luckier to have his heart inside me - he sounded like a remarkable young man."

Since the special union, Gene has stayed in touch with the family and speaks to Valerie almost every day.

"We consider each other extended family," Gene said.

Gene has gone on to honour Cody by doing a solo hike to The White House, Washington DC, from the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, US, where he had received his transplant.

"I walked for 27 days," Gene said.

"All to honour Cody and raise awareness for organ donation."

Since then Gene has gone onto do another solo hike to raise awareness for organ donation.

Gene sees Valerie and the family as much as possible and keeps Cody's picture by his bed.

"I'm always the most blessed man in the room because of this new heart," Gene said.

Valerie said: "Gene is one of our family now.

"Cody was just 20 years old and he made such a selfless decision to donate.

"He's a hero in every aspect.

"For those he saved and his family."

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