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Sharing more than a heart

By BRANDON LEONARD
Aug. 27, 2008 at 3:27 a.m.


The 6-foot-1 inch, 250-pound New Yorker stopped mid-stride as he walked beside the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

He was shaking and in tears.

He held a letter from the family of his organ donor, ripping it open as he headed toward the lot where his car was parked on 168th Street.

“When I got to that part of the letter about where I found out this guy was a chef, I stopped in my tracks,” Kevin Nurse said. “I’ve never had anything in life literally stop me dead in my tracks.”

A year earlier, Aug. 3, 2006, Kevin had received a heart transplant. The life-saving procedure came five months after the left side of his heart stopped working. He was about to finish a journey that took him from death’s doorstep to a family in Texas he never knew existed.

Clinching the letter with shaking hands, Kevin turned and hurried back to the transplant center. He couldn’t believe the man who gave him his heart shared his love of cooking.

“Daniel didn’t finish his work, but he is going to be able to finish it through me,” Kevin said he realized. “That’s why this happened to me. I’m going to take my love for cooking and his love for it. It’s got to be worth something.”

A second chance

Kevin’s close encounter with death made him reconsider what to do with his second chance at life.

The 17-year UPS employee turned down a promotion to start culinary school, studying at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York City.

“I almost died. I’m going to do something I love,” Kevin said. “I’m going to go cook.”

His sister, Diorling Nurse, had encouraged him to switch careers long before a viral infection damaged his heart.

Diorling noticed Kevin take an interest in cooking and cars when he was a teenager. She was disappointed when Kevin, then 19, turned his temporary position with UPS into a career.

She thought he was letting his life pass him by.

The gift of a heart had changed Kevin’s life, but a nagging feeling remained.

“It was a bittersweet thing,” Diorling said. “There was someone out there crying while we were jumping up and down for joy.”

Parents’ pain

Daniel and Cecilia Zarate took the familiar route home on U.S. Highway 59 a few weeks before Christmas 2007.

Daniel drove while Cecilia usually opened the mail on the half-hour trip to their house in Edna. But, as the second Christmas since their son Daniel’s death neared, the couple cried.

Holidays made the family feel the loss even more. Their son, Daniel Zarate Jr., died Aug. 2, 2006, in a car crash near Alexandria, Va. He had moved there to pursue his career as a chef.

Since their son’s death, many of their car conversations focused almost exclusively on him.

This trip specifically was hard for Cecilia.

The couple arrived home and sat on their couch. Cecilia laid her head on her husband’s chest, and the two wept.

“If only I could hear Daniel’s heartbeat and the person who got it, I think it would help me,” Cecilia told her husband.

Cecilia flipped through the mail and noticed a letter from the transplant center. She opened it.

Kevin, the heart recipient, wanted to meet them.

“A feeling of relief that calmed the heart came over me with the thought of meeting Kevin,” Cecilia said.

‘20/20’ arranges meeting

Kevin and the Zarates first got to know each other over the phone. Every Zarate family member eagerly took a turn at the phone during those early conversations.

The first visit in early June was a one-day stay in New York arranged by “20/20.” A producer of the ABC prime-time news show had spotted a YouTube video about Kevin’s transplant.

Kevin’s culinary school produced the video as a promotional tool. Kevin, who was waiting for the Zarates’ contact information from the transplant center, hoped the family would see the video and contact him.

The show flew the Zarates in to film the story for an upcoming episode, which is scheduled for this fall.

They met again Aug. 1 in Edna, away from the glare of the network cameras. This time, Kevin made the journey.

“Knowing my son’s heart came home,” Cecilia said before breaking into tears.

“We’re thankful, sad,” Daniel continued.

Kevin stayed with the Zarates.

Daniel and Cecilia took Kevin to the places where their son went to school, visiting Corpus Christi’s Del Mar College, Lone Star College near Montgomery and Edna High School.

Kevin and the Zarates slowly wound through the halls of Edna High, stopping for moments at classrooms and areas where Daniel and Cecilia would recount stories of their son’s time as a student there.

The three rested on a bench among the senior locker section. A 10-foot Edna Cowboys rally prop sat in between rows of blue lockers and overlooked them.

“One of these lockers was his. He was actually here,” Kevin said.

“Through this whole process, I’m glad to know they were willing to meet me, care for me,” Kevin said, explaining his personal fears his donor’s family wouldn’t want to meet him because he was black.

“It’s good to be able to share that with them. They were the ones ...,” Kevin said, stopping as tears trickled down his cheeks.

Kevin said he felt as if he had a new family.

“The family I’ve always dreamt about, I’m a part of now,” he said.

Even a six-day visit wasn’t long enough, Kevin and the Zarates said. Kevin said he plans to visit again, this time bringing his daughter, family and close friends with him.

“He’s family now,” Daniel added.

For the Zarates, Kevin’s visit was a rush of emotions.

“I wish I could have both of them,” Cecilia said. “I always wanted to adopt. This is something like that.”

A relative loaned Daniel and Cecilia a stethoscope so the family could listen to their son’s heart.

“To be able to still hear my son’s heart beating in someone else, that’s something,” Cecilia said. “It’s wonderful and hard, too.”

Other recipients

of Daniel Zarate’s organs: Pancreas, kidney – Doug Apple

Liver – Tom Wachala

Kidney – unknown

Food Network appearance

Heart recipient Kevin Nurse will be a guest chef on Food Network’s “BBQ with Bobby Flay” at 8 a.m. Sunday.

“20/20” episode

‘ABC news show “20/20” has not yet set a date for the broadcast of the Daniel and Cecilia Zarate’s trip to New York to meet Kevin Nurse for the first time. The segment is expected to air sometime this fall.’

Story Timeline

Aug. 3, 2006 – Kevin Nurse receives a heart transplant.

Late December 2007 – Daniel and Cecilia Zarate receive Kevin’s first letter.

March 2008 – Kevin receives first letter from the donor’s family, via transplant center, but it does not include contact information.

Early April 2008 – Kevin posts YouTube video in an attempt to locate Zarate family.

Mid-April 2008 – ABC News’ “20/20” contacts Kevin.

Late April 2008 – The Zarates and Kevin have first phone conversation.

Early May 2008 – The Zarates talk with 20/20.

Early June 2008 - “20/20” flies the Zarates to New York to film their first meeting with Kevin.

Aug. 1-6, 2008 – Kevin visits Zarate family in Edna.

Earlier connections

n Many transplant organizations have changed their policy regarding when organ recipients and donor families may meet.

n Before, it was standard practice to keep recipients and donor families apart for one year.

n Now, many organizations allow families and recipients to contact each other as soon as they feel comfortable to do so and sign a release form, according to the South Texas Transplant Alliance.

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