NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ - Saturday's reunion wasn't an ordinary meeting -- it was an incredibly powerful reunion between a donor family and an organ recipient at the NJ Sharing Network in New Providence. You could feel the raw emotion of the Rodriguez family as they anxiously waited to meet Robert Fisher, who lives because of their brother's gift of life.
Nolman Vidal Rodriguez, of Trenton, died tragically in 2016 at the age of 24 and his family made the decision to give the gift of life by donating his organs. He donated both kidneys, pancreas, liver, both lungs, heart and corneas. Fisher, of Ocean Gate, NJ, was the recipient of Nolman's heart and one kidney.
When Fisher and his family walked through the door, he immediately embraced Nolman's sister Rocelia, who sobbed in his arms. He assured her that her brother was with them. "He's here, he's here," he said, while hugging members of the Rodriguez family. He was able to tell them how sorry he was for their loss and thanked them for the gift of life. And they were able to feel the beat of their brother's heart that lives on in Fisher.
Fisher waited a year and a half for a heart transplant and it was a really rough time for him after Superstorm Sandy, he said. "When they told me they had a heart and kidney for me, I was really surprised." -- "I had the transplant -- when I woke up, I felt the difference of Nolman inside me." -- "The minute I woke up, I felt him inside me and I feel like I know him."
Through a translator, Rocelia said, "God knows why he does things. You may question why things happen, but he put us in this situation so you can have your heart as a gift," she said.
Due to strict anonymity rules that govern organ donation, direct communication is not allowed. Rocelia waited a year and wrote a letter to Fisher asking to meet. In this case, the letter of introduction went through the NJ Sharing Network to protect the confidentiality of both the donor and recipient. After the initial contact, the donor and recipient families may decide to contact each other directly.
"It was the best day that I had in a long time," said Fisher of receiving Rocelia's letter. For Fisher, this reunion means so much to him because he can finally meet the family and say thank you. "He saved my life twice -- he is a hero," he said.
Nolman's brother and sister were able to feel their brother's heart beating inside Fisher. Nolman's mother, who lives in Honduras, was unable to attend this reunion, but sent a message for Fisher. "Even though she doesn't know you, she loves you because her son is in you," said Rocelia. Fisher said that he feels the same way. "Tell her that I felt that way the day I got the heart. The minute I woke up, I felt him inside me and I feel like I know him."
Fisher knew that Nolman's mother would find comfort in hearing her son's heartbeat and handed Rocelia a gift. "I know that you wanted your mom to be able to hear his heartbeat everyday," said Fisher. "So, I brought her something so she can." The gift was a teddy bear with angel wings. When you squeeze the bear's paw, you can hear the sound of Nolman's heartbeat.
Fisher told the family, "Just remember he is always here. Just because he isn't sitting here, doesn't mean he isn't here. He is right here and he will always be here for you anytime."
He then asked the family if they could tell him a little bit about Nolman. He already knew he was athletic and strong due to the strength of his new heart. The family then showed him pictures of Nolman and told his story through the translator.
"He was very courageous," she said. "He came to this country as a young man -- he came here for the love of his family." She explained that Nolman came to the United States from Honduras because their father was sick and needed surgery back in Honduras. "He didn't care that sometimes he couldn't afford to eat. He always wanted to make sure his family was taken care of." He was an accountant in Honduras and he wanted to obtain the credentials to pursue that profession in the United States.
Rocelia said that she came to the United States because of her brother. He helped her to come here with her kids. He was always their hero and he continues to be that hero. "Despite the tragedy of how he died and he is not here to be with us, he is still alive in you," she said.
Fisher is forever grateful to Nolman's family. "He gave me the greatest gift that we can ever have," said Fisher. "There is no thank you in the world that I can tell you and there is not a day that goes by that I don't think of him. Like I've known him forever. I will take good care of him. You did not lose a brother, you gained a brother too."
The Rodriguez family also feels like they gained a brother. The translator spoke for Nolman's brother, "They lost their brother and it has been hard -- knowing that he is able to live and give someone else life is what has helped him."
Fisher told the Rodriguez family, "You are now part of my family. You will always be part of my family. We are always one. It will always be that way. He [Nolman] takes good care of me and I will take care of him."
"It's amazing how strong I feel him everyday. He is there. It is like he talks to me everyday. That is why I couldn't wait to meet you because it's like I knew you already," he said.
He told the Rodriguez family that without Nolman's heart, he wouldn't have been able to walk his daughter down the aisle this past November. And with that, Rosalie smiled and said that she too got married in September.
He asked the family if they wanted to hear his heart.
They continued their reunion and placed stones in memory of Nolman in the NJ Sharing Network's Landscape of Life Meditation Garden, a special place for those whose lives have been touched by organ and tissue donation and transplantation.
NJ Sharing Network's goal is to educate New Jersey residents about the life-saving benefits of organ and tissue donation and transplantation, so they can discuss donation with their families and make the personal decision to register as a donor. To learn more about NJ Sharing Network visit their website www.njsharingnetwork.org.