Jan 19, 2014 12:23 By Annette Witheridge
When Connor Rabinowitz and Erin Roberts first laid eyes on each other, it was more than just love at first sight – because her brother’s heart was beating in Connor’s chest.
Connor was 17 and suffering from a genetic heart disease when he received Kellen Roberts’ heart after the 22-year-old died in a fight and his family decided to donate his organs.
One year later Connor met Kellen’s family – and fell madly in love with his 26-year-old sister. She thought he was cute but dismissed it as a crush.
But Connor refused to give up. Four years later when they met up again, sparks flew. Now they are living together and planning to marry. “We had an instant connection – we both feel that Kellen bought us together,” Connor says.
He was a super-fit baseball fanatic when he started suffering flu-like symptoms in November 2004.
He was rushed to hospital when he woke up in a sweat one morning and could see his enlarged heart beating through his chest. After a battery of tests, doctors broke the awful news to him that he would die without a heart transplant.
Four months later, as Connor lay gravely ill in a Minnesota hospital, Kellen died of head injuries when he was attacked in the neighbouring state of South Dakota.
His heart was donated to Connor – a complete stranger, hundreds of miles away. Connor admits that when he came round after the operation he had mixed emotions. “It was the best day of my life but I knew someone had died for me,” he says.
“I felt undeserving, that I had something to do with this person’s death. I struggled with that for a while.”
As he recovered, he wrote a letter to the family of the anonymous donor in Seattle, Washington, and asked transplant charities to pass it on to them.
“Kellen’s mother Nancy got in touch immediately and a few months later my mum flew to meet her. Six months after that I was well enough to visit too.
“It was an emotional meeting and as Nancy put her hand on my chest to feel Kellen’s heart beating inside me, I saw Erin for the first time.
“We locked eyes – and I was smitten. Erin felt the connection too but she tried to dismiss it, thinking I was too young.
“She took me sightseeing for the weekend and we felt so comfortable together, like we’d known each other our entire lives. I visited twice more and felt the same, but we were both dating other people.”
Scars: Connor in hospital after the transplant
The pair lost touch but in 2010 reconnected via Facebook – and this time the sparks flew.
“We were both single for the first time and everything just fell into place,” says Connor, now 26.
After meeting up again, they shared their first kiss and had a heartfelt discussion about their feelings.
“From the moment we met there was a deep connection, I felt like I’d known Erin my whole life and there was no awkwardness between us. We were just so comfortable together,” he says.
“Erin felt the same but at first she thought it was because of her brother. Then we finally kissed and everything fell into place.”
Mum-of-one Erin, a school assistant, says she also felt an attraction when she first met Connor but was confused about her feelings.
“He was still very young and I thought he might have a teenage crush,” she says. “I tried to dismiss my confused feelings. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Connor – he made me feel happy.
“After we reconnected via Facebook in 2010 everything changed. He came to visit and for the first time I felt really nervous around him.
“When he left, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, my heart was just racing.
“I didn’t know whether to act on my feelings or not. I was so relieved he made that first move – it meant I could tell him I felt the same way.
“When we had our first kiss, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.”
Connor was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, training to be a cardiovascular ultrasound technician and Erin lived in Seattle, so their relationship remained long-distance for another year.
“My parents were worried about me getting hurt,” he says. “They weren’t sure it was a good idea. But once they saw how happy we were, it was easy for them.
“It was harder for Erin’s mum because I am carrying her son’s heart. When I lived 2,000 miles away she could pretend I was her son and he was simply away visiting. Nancy and I have a great relationship but I know her emotions were all over the place for a while.”
Tragic: Kellen died of head injuries following a fight
Erin, now 33, also had to break the news to her son Christian that she’d fallen for Connor. But Christian, 14, was absolutely delighted and immediately made Connor feel welcome.
“He’s a great kid, one of a kind, and he accepted me into the family straight away. We’re really close,” says Connor. Every March 7 – the anniversary of Kellen’s death and Connor’s life-saving heart transplant – the couple release balloons with notes attached for Kellen.
“I know he brought us together and I know he is watching over us,” says Connor, who is now a medical technician at a Seattle hospital.
“All of the family tell me stories about Kellen. He is always in my thoughts – and obviously in my heart. He was a great guy – he always looked out for people. Through him, I hope I can do the same. If I was to meet him today, it would be like meeting my other half.”
Connor and Erin now give talks to high school pupils about the importance of organ donations on behalf of transplant charity Life Center North West.
“Britain is very forward-thinking when it comes to organ donation – people fill in forms saying specifically that they wish to donate, and parts of Europe have presumed consent,” Connor says.
“I’d like to see America follow suit – at the moment the donor or family has to give permission to harvest organs –and it is my job to promote that.
“When Erin and I visit schools we talk a little about the importance of organ donation and about how many people are awaiting transplants, then we tell them our story. It’s a great way to promote Life Center’s work.”
Erin says: “Kellen’s life was so precious and Connor and I will never forget that. His big heart bought us both together.”
Tragedy that led to love
Kellen Roberts died after getting into a fight with Cody Faber outside a house party. He sustained fatal injuries when he fell and hit his head.
Cody, then 20, was originally charged with second degree manslaughter, but a judge decided that because Kellen’s fatal injuries were as a result of his fall on the concrete driveway, and not from colliding with Cody, he couldn’t support the original manslaughter charge.
Cody pleaded guilty to simple assault and spent just 10 days in jail.
Kellen’s mum Nancy said she didn’t believe anyone had intended to harm her son.
She said: “That’s the verdict we wanted. It became clear to us that Cody was telling the truth – as clear as you could be with alcohol and all the chaos.”
Cody said: “I’m truly sorry that all this had to happen. This has been the hardest three months of my life and it will probably be the hardest three months for the rest of my life.”
For information about organ donation go to organdonation.nhs.uk
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