On the left, couple Connor Rabinowitz and Erin Roberts together in Seattle. At right, Erin’s brother Kellen Roberts, whose organs were donated after his passing at age 22 in 2005. Connor received Kellen’s heart in a 2006 transplant that saved his life. Later, Connor and Erin fell in love.
How one heart healed two families, a Valentine’s Day tale
After receiving a new heart, a young man falls in love with donor’s sister
A heart has two functions in the human experience. There is the physical side (the engine that pumps blood throughout our bodies) and the less-scientifically bound belief that our hearts guide us in love.
In this rare case, the heart’s two functions have merged.
It’s the story of a young West Seattle man named Kellen Roberts who left his family too soon, passing away at the age of 22 in 2005.
Halfway across the country, a 17-year-old boy named Connor Rabinowitz was going through high school in Minnesota, well on his way to receiving a full ride baseball scholarship to college when he went to the doctor for a medical exam, and everything changed.
Connor was told he was in dire need of a heart transplant due to a genetic disease that enlarged and weakened his most crucial of organs. He needed a new heart, the doctors said, or he would not survive.
A top-rated high school catcher, Connor’s dream of playing professional baseball was finished.
“I had been such a strong, healthy young man who’d never been sick, on the verge of a baseball scholarship to the Division 1 school of my choice and one week later doctors were telling me I could die if I don’t receive a life saving heart transplant,” Connor said.
The waiting game began and lasted 96 days.
“Baseball was my life for 17 years and it was hard to get over the fact that it was over for me,” he said. “The sicker I got throughout my 96-day stay in the hospital the more I realized baseball is just a game, and life is so much more than that.
“I would lie in bed at night and pray for a heart to come quickly or I wouldn’t make it. I would think every day and night about the person who would have to die for me to live. I prayed for that family who would be receiving such a different call from that of mine.”
And then the call came: A young man in Seattle had passed away and his family was donating his organs to help others. That young man was Kellen Roberts from West Seattle, and his mom, Nancy, and sister, Erin, began working with LifeCenter Northwest, who counseled the grieving family through the process.
His heart was a perfect match for Connor.
“This means a man just died, yet he thought that in his death he could save multiple lives by donating his organs,” said Connor. “I was so thankful for this person I couldn’t stop crying.”
“We were so grateful that Kell’s organs were able to be donated, and thrilled, as we know Kellen would have been, that he was able to save six lives. It gave us such joy and hope in the middle of our enormous loss,” Nancy, Kellen’s mom, recently wrote.
Connor’s transplant surgery was a success, and he woke up a few days later with a new heart beating inside his chest.
“I was now forever connected with this young man who sacrificed his life and chose to save mine,” Connor said. “He is my hero, my guardian angel and I will be forever grateful for his decision to donate his organs.”
Connor’s first order of business was to write a letter to the Roberts family to find out if they would be willing to meet. As Jen Bergman with LifeCenter Northwest explained, the donor family and recipient are kept anonymous unless they both agree to meet.
“Both families were eager to get to know each other, and we started communicating with the Rabinowitz family,” Nancy said. The first year Connor’s mom came to West Seattle to visit the Roberts. The next year, Connor joined his mom on the trip and met his savior’s family for the first time.
Connor and Erin: an instant connection
“It was a connection at first sight,” Connor said of meeting Erin, Kellen’s younger sister for the first time. “We hit it off right away and became friends.”
Nancy said Erin spent that first visit introducing Connor to Kellen’s friends, his stomping grounds, and who he was during his time on earth.
Connor’s yearly visits continued from 2006 to 2010. Connor and Erin’s connection grew stronger with each visit and in 2011, they took their relationship to the next level.
A long-distance relationship was forged as Erin went to college in Seattle and Connor in Minneapolis.
Nancy explained, from a mother’s perspective, “Through visits back and forth, Connor and Erin fell in love. She feels an ease and comfort and acceptance and love that she hasn't felt before.”
Connor graduated and moved to Seattle in 2012 so he and Erin could finally be together. Connor, by the way, is trained as a cardiac ultrasound technician.
The two lovebirds will be spending their first Valentine’s Day together this year, and Connor said wedding bells are certainly a possibility in their future.
“I feel like I talk to him every day, I feel like I hear his voice all the time,” Connor said of Kellen. “I just try to live my life the way that he would appreciate and that he would value.”
Part of that connection, he believes, is “caring for Erin and caring for his memory of being with her also.”
“I miss my son, but I am clear in my belief that he is happy and understands and smiles at everything that has ensued since he left us,” Nancy said. “The world unfolds in ways that I cannot fathom, but I trust and believe in the way things are, and that all things happen for a purpose.
“I thank my son daily for the gifts he gave us when he was here with us in body, and for the continuing gifts he gives us daily. One of those tangible gifts is Connor and his unexpected presence in our daily lives. “