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SOUTH BEND — Valerie Matthews has taken a painful stroll down County Road 108 in Elkhart every year on May 16 to the spot where her daughter was hit by a pickup truck.
It may be time to stop. For five years, she says, it’s as if she’s been calling out to her 12-year-old daughter, Da’jeianna Smith: “I’m waiting for your heart to walk with me.”
They took that walk this week. Da’jeianna’s transplanted heart now beats inside of 20-year-old Dalton Igoe of Altoona, Pa., who came to visit.
Not only that. On Wednesday, Valerie and Dalton paddled kayaks for the first time in their lives on a pond at St. Patrick’s County Park. And Dalton scaled halfway up a climbing wall at the Family Passport to Play event at the park, then descended, saying, “I guess I’m still not a height person.”
“I can’t believe you did that,” said his mom, Dawn Igoe, as she watched another first-ever event.
“Me neither,” he replied.
None of that would have been possible without Da’jeianna’s heart.
Dalton was born with six congenital heart defects. He lost one lung because of blood clots. He wore a pacemaker to control his heart rate. But the ultimate reason for his transplant was from a condition that his bad heart had triggered: protein-losing enteropathy, where fluids swell in the stomach and, among other things, keep a youth from taking in food, leading to starvation.
He was in desperate shape, swollen and unable to walk. He needed a child’s heart.
After school on May 16, 2012, Valerie drove Da’jeianna back to her Elkhart school, Woodland Elementary, because the girl wanted to play with friends at the playground. Da’jeianna didn’t see her friends, so she began the almost 1-mile hike home along County Road 108. Just over halfway back, at about 5 p.m., a pickup truck hit Da’jeianna. The driver told police that he didn’t see her and that he didn’t realize he’d hit a child until people started shouting at him, according to an initial news report.
Da’jeianna, the second oldest out of four children, died the next day in the hospital. Valerie immediately agreed to donate her daughter’s organs. When Dawn Igoe got word that a transplant was available, she alerted friends, and that afternoon 40 to 50 of them gathered at their house. They prayed for Dalton’s success and for the family, unknown to them, who’d lost a girl.
Valerie knows that one of Da’jeianna’s eyes went to a woman in Elkhart and another to a woman in Chicago. Her kidneys went to two people, and her pancreas to yet another person. But she’s never met them.
The Pennsylvania organization that helped with the transplant, the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, also had brought these two families together for the first time two years ago in Pittsburgh.
That moment, Dalton says, was “surreal.”
“Not much was said in the first 20 minutes,” he recalls.
The families were in separate quarters of a Sheraton Hotel until — with six TV news crews tagging along — they met in a conference room overlooking the Monongahela River.
“A bunch of hugs and emotions running,” Dalton describes. “Just putting a face to the other side for both families.” And saying the words “thank you” and “sorry.”
Each family eventually shared the sagas that had brought them to that moment. But the visit, as part of a conference on organ transplants, was a brief 24 hours.
The next time they saw each other was when Dalton and his mom, Dawn, arrived Monday in Elkhart, starting a three days of emotions.
Monday’s rendezvous at a South Bend Cubs game, where Dalton threw out the first pitch, was joy and excitement “for the fact that we were all together again,” he says.
Tuesday was somber and deep as the families gathered at the site of the accident, where Valerie takes a memorial walk each year on the date of the crash.
“I really hate doing it,” Valerie says, because of what it recalls. She’s since moved to Goshen.
Leading up to it, Dalton was excited, nervous and curious because, until then, all he knew was that “she (Da’jeianna) was hit by a car walking on a road.”
This time, with both families around for support, Valerie walked and shared those accident details that Dalton and his mom didn’t know. And Dalton placed his hand on a memorial cross near the crash site as Valerie covered it with green spray paint to leave his silhouetted mark.
Dawn called her husband that night and couldn’t describe the feeling.
“It finished out what we wanted to realize,” Dalton says. “We experienced what she’s been doing.”
Valerie, who last week added Dalton’s name to the tattoos on her left arm, just over the shoulder from a tattoo of Da’jeianna’s face, says the best part is seeing how Dalton has grown.
“It gives me a sense of peace,” she says. “I can touch her.”
Wednesday began with picnic at the Elkhart cemetery where the girl is buried, a visit to an escape room in Mishawaka and then to St. Pat’s park and later bowling. It was a testament to Dalton’s physical capabilities, which wouldn’t have been possible “if not for the amazing gift.”
As a volunteer firefighter, Dalton also dons up to 120 pounds of gear for 20 or 30 minutes at a time to battle fires. With just one lung, he says, he can handle short periods of physical activity. Hot days make it a challenge, too, which he manages by resting and staying hydrated. Still, he’s joined his family on hikes, including five miles in Acadia National Park in Maine. He couldn’t qualify for sports, but he took up playing the drums, bowling and dancing to jazz and hip hop.
He recently gained certification as an emergency medical technician, or EMT, and began work full time as an ambulance driver, doing medical transports. His early life in and out of hospitals led him to being an EMT, he says, adding, “It’s my way of giving back to everyone who took care of me.”
He also gives 15 to 20 talks a year in Pennsylvania to advocate for organ transplants.
Da’jeianna’s heart does an “amazing” job, says Dalton, who takes the typical series of drugs to keep his body from rejecting it.
But the events of this week, he says, “strengthened both of us; it made us one big family.”