Angel Heart

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.


Inspired by a fellow blogger who also didn’t know what to do for Mother’s Day, I am dedicating this post to the woman who has given the most of herself to enable me to be where I am today. I am not writing this as a list of all the things my mother has done that inspire me. Rather, I want to share some of the biggest lessons I have learned from her and show how they came to be.

Karla was born in the tiny farm community of Munich, North Dakota (pop. 210), and for some reason (or perhaps that very reason) she has since traveled all over the world. I don’t know where her spirit to explore comes from but I know I have inherited it. And she has only ever encouraged me to blaze my own trail. My appreciation for the world around me began with weekend camping and hiking trips. As a family, we endured mosquito swarms, downpours and sleepless nights. But, believing that there is an obtainable solution to every problem, I learned how to see through obstacles in my way over the years. Before a family trip to Australia, she learned to swim so we could all go snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef; in preparation for a trip to Colombia, she and my father learned Spanish. I couldn’t ask for a better model for trying new things. And I have seen how easy it is to make a difference in others’ lives. A couple years ago she began training as a Red Cross volunteer, to assist victims of fires and other disasters. Now, when she sounds tired on the phone in the afternoon, I know she was probably up all night working an event. The balance of fun, work, conservation, indulgence and taking everything in moderation is the lesson I will continue to practice all my life.

Despite all she has seen and done, I believe her small-town upbringing lets her enjoy life’s simple pleasures, like a sunny day or the wind in her hair.

I love you, mom!

Leaning over the edge of a whale-watching boat in Maui last year.

Lizard Legacy

Although he has been in my sister’s and then my parents’ care for the last five years, my leopard gecko Ardie died today. He lost sight in both eyes years ago and hasn’t been able to feed himself for a long time. In the last month he went downhill quickly and lost about half his body weight. When my mother took him to the vet recently, his charts indicated DOB as 1994. 18 years. I thought he was only 14. Which means he lived a longer life than I even realized. RIP little guy.

This photo is from probably one of my earliest “studio” shoots ever, from 2002, for which I used a lamp, some leaves and a big white piece of cardboard. I’d guess it was taken in the fall…