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Heart to heart

Tom Sullivan faced a long road to get to the place where he is now. Around a decade ago, he began experiencing symptoms of heart failure. Tom went through plenty of interventions: he had stents and a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) put in, and he ultimately needed open heart surgery. But nothing seemed to work. 

“I wasn’t doing well,” he said. “My heart was failing, my kidneys were failing, and after a year and a half of waiting on the heart transplant list, I was starting to think about my own funeral arrangements.”

Hope for donation

But just when he was about to give up hope, a matching heart and kidney became available in July, 2018. The double transplant surgery at Tufts Medical Center went smoothly – nearly a year later, there have been no complications. The new organs saved his life.

“It’s been a difficult battle to get here,” said Tom, “but life is good.”

About a month after receiving his new heart, Tom reached out to the donor family. He didn’t hear back immediately, but on May 23, 2019, Tom received a written reply. They went on to speak several times by phone – the family wanted to know how Tom was doing, and he wanted to learn all about Justin Poitras, the donor.

About Justin

Donor's family meets recipientJustin’s mother, Miriam Poitras, was more than happy to share. She remembers Justin as a warm, loving and kind person. Justin joined the Marines after high school and then went back to school for his bachelor’s degree in Exercise Physiology. He worked as a personal trainer before joining the Boston Fire Department in 2017. Always striving to help others, he volunteered to help burn victims at Shriners Hospital for Children and fundraised for the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation.

On July 3, 2018, a car ran a stop sign and hit Justin’s motorcycle. He died the next day. Justin was 31 years old. He was a registered organ donor, so his family donated his heart, liver, kidneys and lungs, saving the lives of six people, including Tom. Miriam said that while it was a difficult thing to do, she was determined to honor his wishes.

“Justin wanted to save lives,” she said. “He did that until the very end of his life.” 

Meeting family

After several weeks of communicating by phone, Tom and Justin’s family – Miriam, his father Mark, his stepmother Sue, his brother Joshua and his girlfriend Bana – agreed to meet. They decided on June 10, 2019 in a quiet patient and family lounge at Tufts Medical Center, a midway point between Tom’s home in Hanover and the Poitras family’s residence in Haverhill. They hugged. They talked. They laughed. They cried. And with the help of a stethoscope and a Doppler monitor, they were all able to hear the sound of Justin’s strong heart beating in Tom’s chest.

For Justin’s family, the experience provided both comfort and closure. 

“Hearing Justin’s heart beating made us feel like he was still alive in Tom’s body,” said Miriam. “It reassured us that Justin didn’t die in vain – he helped save people’s lives in his last, selfless act of giving.”