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The gift of life

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Family meets heart recipient 26 years later

By Stevie Lowery

Joe Strong and his sister, Amy, lost their father when they were just kids.

Joe was eight and Amy was only five when their dad, 27-year-old Darrell Lee Strong, died in a car accident on Halloween night in 1986.

Joe said he grieved his father's death for a long time.

"I was angry for so many years," Joe said. "I didn't understand anything at 8 years old, or as a teenager, I just knew I was mad at the world."

But, recently, Joe and his sister received the closure they've so desperately needed.

They met the man who received their father's heart nearly 27 years ago.

It was a day none of them ever expected to come.

"Who would ever think so many years later you would get that closure," Joe said. "It has brought some peace into my life."

And, according to Joe, his father's heart couldn't have been given to a better man. Bernard "Ben" Meibers, now 80 years old, has dedicated his second chance at life to educating others about organ donation and the gift of giving life.

"I just felt like I was paying homage to the man's heart," Meibers said. "It's been a wonderful life."

At age 54, Meibers, of Louisville, didn't think he would receive a heart. He had been on a waiting list for approximately nine months when he finally got a call that a heart was available. After the transplant, doctors gave him a life expectancy of 2-5 years. Thankfully, they were very wrong, and he's one of the longest living heart transplant survivors. He's also a proud great-grandparent.

And, on Sept. 22, he finally had the opportunity to meet his "second family"... Joe and Amy.

"It was one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me," he said. "After 26 years, I didn't expect it."

Meibers had written a letter to the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates in hopes of possibly meeting his heart donor's family one day.

"It was one of the hardest letters I ever had to write," he said. "To express how much it meant to me."

But, thanks to his letter, and also being featured in The Courier-Journal recently, Meibers got his chance to thank his heart donor's family face-to-face.

It was a moment that none of them can truly put into words, Joe said.

"We were all overwhelmed with joy," Joe said. "It was a great experience."

During their visit, Joe and Amy showed Meiber photos of their father, and learned about Meiber's family, including the fact that Meiber had a son who had died in an automobile accident at the young age of 20.

"His son would have been 27 when he got his heart," Joe said. "The same age my dad was when he died."

During their visit, they also took photos with Meiber. A very poignant moment occurred when Amy asked if she could put her hand on Meiber's heart.

"She got to still feel her daddy's heartbeat," Joe said.

Amy said it was an indescribable experience.

"When I put my hand on his heart, I felt my dad there," she said.

Joe and Amy both agree that this experience has re-instilled in them the importance of organ donation. Their father saved five lives by being an organ donor.

"My dad was a giver," Joe said. "This is what he would have wanted. Those organs aren't going to help anybody six feet under ground."

Amy said there's not a day that goes by that she doesn't think about her dad, but knowing that her dad's heart went to such a special man has also given her some closure.

"Even though we had to give so much in return, it's a great feeling knowing that somebody else could live," she said.

Looking back on things now, Joe said he doesn't think any of the things that have transpired over the past 27 years have happened by coincidence.

"It's a God thing," Joe said. "I do think God's got a bigger plan."