On the afternoon of Halloween I was handed an assignment that at first I didn’t believe. And the more I learned about it, the more I realized how unbelievable it really was.
After photographing trick-or-treaters, I drove over to a hotel in Lynchburg and waited in the lobby with reporter Casey Gillis, her friend Jennifer and Jennifer’s friend Lindsay. Within a few minutes we would be meeting Derri Engstrom and her family, who had arrived from Minnesota that afternoon to complete an amazing journey that led to Lindsay.
Two years earlier, Lindsay gave birth to a little girl, Lillian, who seemed as healthy as any mother could hope. Not long after, however, Lil was diagnosed with a condition that required multiple surgeries on her lower intestine. At seven months old and on life support, doctors told Lindsay that there was nothing else they could do. There was, however, something else Lindsay could do: agree to donate the girl’s heart to another child in need. Lindsay and her boyfriend, Johnny, agreed to do it and had no idea where the heart went for over a year.
Five months earlier, in Minnesota, Derri Engstrom’s son Easten was born with a heart defect that left half of his heart almost useless. Enduring multiple surgeries as well, he was hospitalized and the Engstroms prepared for the worst. Then they got word that a heart was on its way and they prepped little Easten for his biggest surgery yet. The surgeon said it was the best fit he had ever seen. The Engstroms called it his “angel heart.” Derri said she always wondered where the heart had come from.
On the anniversary of the surgery, Derri sent a letter through the donor organization that eventually reached Lindsay, and they decided to talk on the phone. That led to emails and an eventual plan to meet in person. I didn’t learn of any of this until the Engstroms were already in Lynchburg, in their hotel room, getting ready to meet Lindsay in the lobby. I felt like I skipped right to the end of the story, reading the last page without knowing how it all came to be. Luckily, I got to spend a couple more days with them and discovered the depth of their connection and the improbability of the whole situation. They repeatedly described each other as “family” and the two moms treated each other like sisters. I couldn’t distinguish the tears of joy from the tears of grief that both mothers shed.
Here are the photos we published from that weekend, of brand new friends who had already been through more together than many people do in a lifetime. The News & Advance published Casey’s article on Thanksgiving, as Lindsay joined the Engstroms at their home in Minnesota so they could spend another holiday together.