When bouncy Illinois youngster Cazzmir “Cash” Landers perished in an accident in a pool, the heartbreak for his family was unimaginable. However, some good would come of the tragedy that befell the train-loving two-year-old, whose dream was to see the world atop his tricycle. His love of sharing would be honored in a truly special way.
Cash, who also went by “Bubby,” enjoyed others’ company to say the least. He loved to make new friends. In August 2019 his mom, Brooke Eaton, told newspaper the Woodford Times how friendly Cash had been. She said, “He never met a stranger. He was always doing something.”
One thing the toddler from Peoria, Illinois, liked to do was act as his mom’s shadow, copying her as she worked out or cooked. But it was all she could do to keep him indoors. She told the paper, “He was full of life. He wanted to travel the world. On his tricycle. In a day.”
Certainly, Cash and his big sister Cierra, only 16 months older, proved a handful for Eaton, who makes her living as a welder. But the trio made a happy family. Cierra would often join Cash on his trike, and the three of them would head off to parks to ride like the wind.
However, Cash’s life was cut short in the summer of 2018. He was on a visit to East Peoria at his grandparents’ home when he ended up in the swimming pool. Although a loved one tried to keep him alive at the scene, paramedics found him lifeless and took him to a medical center.
After several days on life support, though, things did not improve for Cash. Consequently, doctors had grim news for Eaton. She told the Woodford Times, “There was nothing more they could do.” So the mom had to make the heartrending decision to allow her child’s life to end.
But when a not-for-profit network that helps with donating organs came to Eaton, she received a lift. Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network said that Cash could offer a new chance to other children, so his death would not be completely in vain. Eaton said, “I agreed that it would be a wonderful gift to give.”
In a video that she’d later make, the heartbroken mom shared her view of what Cash would have wanted. She said, “He loved to give to people; he loved to play with other children; he loved to share, so part of his life, giving some of it to… [others] is just part of who he was, part of who he is, and he’s still with us, even though he’s gone.”
Honoring that outlook, Eaton went ahead and gave Cash’s organs to no fewer than four recipients. And as the bereaved mom had hoped, the donations did indeed prove lifesaving for all of them. While three have remained strangers to Eaton so far, as it turned out, one would not.
In University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, a little girl had lain in desperate need of a donor heart. Her name was Lola Bond, and she had come into the world with a problem. It was caused by cardiomyopathy, which is an uncommon ailment that had caused her life-threatening circulatory problems.
Cardiomyopathy can often cause the heart’s muscle, which is known as the myocardium, to become bigger, stiff or thickened. This weakens the muscle, and in the course of time, the organ can then fail in its task of moving blood around the body and bring painful bad consequences to health.
Pediatric cardiomyopathy doesn’t happen very often, with only slightly more than one out of 100,000 children affected. And no one knows why it happens in most sufferers. For some, it may be genetic, but others may simply acquire it during their childhood. It’s much more common for it to show up in children in their first year than in older kids.
As it turned out, the best Lola could hope for initially was that the machines would keep her going for roughly 36 months. However, she needed something more lasting to be done. And the only thing that could fit the bill for her would be a new heart transplanted into her body.
So the hunt began for a new heart for the little girl. And that’s where Cash came in: he turned out to be a match. In August 2019 Lola’s grandma Margaret Vorel recalled the time that she found out to TV network CNN. She said, “I really didn’t believe it. At first, I thought they were kidding.”
The match couldn’t have been more timely. Vorel pointed out to the Woodford Times that Lola had been “really fighting.” So Cash’s heart came to Minneapolis, and the surgical team got to work on Lola. The transplant proved to be a success, although a year afterwards, she still needed care in the hospital.
Although of course Vorel, who cares for Lola alongside her husband Jeffrey and Lola’s mom, was happy that salvation had arrived for her granddaughter, she kept Eaton in mind. She couldn’t forget about the feelings that Eaton had to be going through after losing her son. Vorel recognized that it “had to be the worst day of her life.”
After the operation, Vorel wanted to express her thanks. Under the guidelines set out by Gift of Hope, either donor or recipient can get in touch with the other without sharing their identity. Only about one in ten people ever do write, though. However, Vorel did set her feelings out on paper.
Vorel poured her heart out in the letter. She started by writing, “I would like to begin by offering my condolences and thanking you for this precious gift. I have cried many tears over your loss and thank you daily for your decision as my beautiful granddaughter would not be here without that decision.”
Once she had finished the letter, Vorel put a copy to one side. She hoped one day that she’d be able to give it to Lola, with the idea that she might appreciate what had been done for her. Vorel told the Woodford Times, “It’s for when she’s older, so she can understand.”
Writing is not necessarily the end of it. Gift of Hope can also arrange face-to-face contact if that’s what people want. However, not even one in 50 transplants will have that as a result. And it was very much what Vorel wanted, just not straight away. She gave it three months to allow Eaton’s family time to grieve.
In January 2019 Vorel posted the letter, and Eaton proved to be delighted to receive the communication. She told the Woodford Times, “That was a gift.” Furthermore, she felt that Vorel had really been gracious to send her thanks. She said, “It was an honor that they’d send me a thank-you letter.”
After Eaton had agreed to a meeting, the families began to prepare for her to come over to Minneapolis. The latter put a visit in her diary for late in July 2019, and explained the plan to her daughter. As it turned out, Cierra proved to be very keen on the idea of visiting Lola.
In August 2019 Eaton shared with the Woodford Times how she’d described the purpose of the trip to Cierra. She said, “I just explained that we were going to hear Bubby’s heart.” They would see – and more pertinently hear – for themselves how their loss had very much turned into Lola’s gain.
When the day rolled round, the pair drove over to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, where Lola still occupied a bed. She’d been cared for there since the transplant had put Cash’s heart in her chest a year previously. And to say the occasion proved poignant would be a huge understatement.
Eaton told CNN in August 2019 how it had felt. She said, “As soon as I walked in the room, it was very overwhelming. I saw her, and I just broke down and cried.” There were hugs between Vorel and Eaton, who were both left wordless by the inexpressible feelings which had overtaken them.
Vorel handed Lola over to Eaton, and the toddler clung on for dear life, somehow seeming to feel immediately safe with a woman whom she’d never met before. It appeared that she had taken an instant liking to the newcomer. The two cuddled for a few moments before Eaton took a seat, ready to listen in to Lola’s chest with a stethoscope.
Finally, Eaton could hear her son’s heart beating in Lola’s chest. Afterwards, she told the Woodford Times how it had felt. She said, “It was very exciting. I was glad to hear his heart. And I know my son is happy now. He is in a good place. He is watching over us.”
Eaton told radio station WCCO about the emotion that meeting Lola had stirred up in her. She said in July 2019, “As soon as I saw her I fell in love with her. She’s just precious, and that’s also my boy.” And the moment that she had experienced his heart working also touched her. “I heard his heartbeat. That’s really beautiful,” she explained.
The 36-year-old mom shared what it had sounded like with the Woodford Times. She said, “It was the most beautiful sound in the world.” And she had no doubt that she had made a fresh connection with Cash, as she noted to CNN. She explained, “I could feel my son. His heartbeat was so pure.”
The families weren’t alone in finding the meeting one that was full of emotion. One of Lola’s care team, doctor Ashley Loomis, told WCCO exactly how it had made her feel. She said, “To see a reunion like this today is just amazing – it brings tears to your eyes.”
In the time that they spent together, Eaton felt that she had forged a strong bond with Lola. She told WCCO, “To have a connection with my baby still, like with me and Lola, we’re going to have a connection the rest of our lives.” And that wasn’t the only thing that would strengthen that link.
You see, it turned out that a music therapist at the hospital had written a song which used the sound of Cash’s heartbeat in its melody. And the Vorels had handed a copy to Eaton. The bereaved mom then had the idea of encapsulating the song into a necklace, so that she might carry the sound close to her own heart.
Vorel attested to the fact that the bond that Eaton felt wasn’t an illusion. She told CNN, “Lola seemed to have an instant connection with her. The moment Brooke held her, Lola just melted into her chest.” And the link went deeper for Vorel, because she, too, felt so deeply towards Eaton. She said, “Because of her great decision, we have Lola.”
The grandma shared her gratitude with the Woodford Times. She said, “It was wonderful to be able to thank the family who shared her little girl.” At the same time, she welcomed Eaton and Cierra into her life. She told the Daily Mail newspaper, “Knowing there’s a whole ’nother family that loves her as much as we do is amazing. We have the rest of her life to celebrate every day.”
As for Lola, her progress has been excellent. She’ll need lifelong drugs to prevent her from rejecting her new heart; however, her carers believe that her future is very bright. They foresee her recovering fully and growing up without any further problems, barring the possible need for a further transplant when she’s older.
Because the toddler had been a lot younger than Cash when she’d received his heart, she had to grow into it. However, there had been a noticeable improvement in her activity levels since the transplant. And as of September 2019, nothing has suggested that her body will reject the heart.
The experience has left Vorel a dedicated proponent of donating organs. On her Facebook page, Lola’s Rockstars, she told the story of Lola’s voyage from sickness to health. Her aim is to let families facing the same difficulties know that although transplants can be frightening, no one has to confront them alone.
Certainly, what they have been through has brought the families together. They decided that they would share holidays together in 2019. And they’d also keep in touch. Eaton explained why it was so important to her to the Woodford Times. She said, “I’ll always wonder what she’s doing with my boy’s heart.”
On top of that, Eaton believed that Cash had a real legacy in Lola’s life. She said, “His life will live on through other kids. And he will see the world through them.” Vorel agreed, telling CNN, “Cash can live on inside of Lola.” And she, too, believed that it was crucial that the families should stay in touch, saying, “[Eaton] will be a big part of our life from here on out.”
Undoubtedly, Cash’s drowning brought tragedy into his family’s life. But his mom’s brave choice gave a gift beyond price to Lola and her family. Now her grandmother can look forward to many happy years with the toddler. She told the Woodford Times, “We anticipate that in the future she will be a normal child. The heart is doing great.”