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A family's loss provides life for 57 others

Smith and Kowalski attend various Gift of Life events, encouraging others to check the organ donor box on the back of their drivers licenses.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Four years ago, 24-year-old Cody Baron lost his battle with depression. He died by suicide.

But now, his heart beats on. It’s just inside another person.

56 other organs and tissue are also living on in other people. After his death, Cody gave 117 “gifts.” 57 of those gifts were given with no rejection.

During the difficult time of her son’s death, Cody’s mother, Wendy Smith, had a tough decision to make.

“We were called to the hospital and they explained to us that Cody was not going to survive,” said Smith, “And we had a choice to make about organ donation.”

Credit: 13 OYS
Cody Baron as a child.

Smith said Cody had been vocal about organ donation in the past, and he often gave blood and plasma during his life.

“It’s hard, because at the time, you’ve just lost your child,” said Smith, “and anyone who has lost a child knows you’d give anything in the whole wide world to bring that child back. And they’re asking for more. But the thing is, by giving more, you’re investing in your healing.”

At first, Smith opened the donation to friends and family who were waiting for transplants. First on that list was Smith’s childhood friend, Tami Skok. She had kidney failure and had been waiting for a new organ for years.

“She was crying, I was crying,” said Skok, “and I was a blood match.”

Smith said she was allowed to call Skok to give her the news. It was bittersweet, as Skok knew Cody during his life.

“There was this part of me that was so relieved,” said Skok, “but I was so heartbroken that they were going through this. They were so brave to be able to try and do organ donation, and provide a second chance for those of us, through no fault of our own, had failing organs.”

Credit: 13 OYS
Tami Skok tears up when she remembers the moment she learned she was a match for Cody's kidney.

Cody also gave his heart, and Smith knew it was successful for the recipient. It wasn’t until three years after Cody’s death, that Smith met the man, who had Cody’s heart beating in his chest.

“I felt a piece of him when I listened to Chris’s chest,” said Smith, “It was the first time I felt like he was there.”

Chris Kowalski learned he had congestive heart failure in 1999. He had open heart surgery, a pacemaker, and multiple procedures. After many failures and complications, he was told he needed a new heart.

Then, an hour later, he learned there was a match ready. This was on April 1. Chris thought it was an April Fools Day joke.

“They found a heart and assured me they weren’t kidding,” said Kowalksi, “and two days later, we were complete.

After his heart transplant, Kowalski started living again. He visited Hawaii, traveled, and hiked trails he never was able to do before.

Credit: Chris Kowalski
Chris Kowalski poses with a photo of Cody while traveling.

Gift of Life doesn’t immediately let donor families and recipients know each other. Three years after the transplant, Kowalksi moved back to Grand Rapids, and contacted Gift of Life of his new location.

“They said we have a letter here for you,” said Kowalksi, “And that’s when they said it’s from Wendy. I said you have to give that to me now. We found out we were 15 minutes apart, which was crazy.”

The two planned their meeting. Soon after, they became like family.

“I live for two now,” said Chris Kowalksi, who received Cody’s heart, “And that puts more pressure on me, because it’s not just me anymore. And when I wrote letters, I wrote we, we went here, I referred to me as we, because it’s Cody and I.”

Kowalski also made a bear for Smith. It has a recording of Cody and Kowalski's heartbeat, with a voice message from Kowalksi.

Credit: 13 OYS
A teddy bear Kowalski made for Smith, with a recording of his and Cody's heartbeat.

Smith says their bittersweet story is a reminder to make the choice to be an organ donor.

“Meeting Chris three years later, and hearing my son’s heartbeat,” said Smith, “and knowing there’s a part of him, many parts of him on this planet, that are still alive, and helping other people to live and having much better lives, is worth everything.”

Credit: Chris Kowalski
Kowalksi, Wendy, and her son pose for a picture.

Smith and Kowalski attend various Gift of Life events, encouraging others to check the organ donor box on the back of their drivers licenses.

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To become an organ donor, you can also visit this website.

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