UNION, NJ – Joey Burlew was just 28-years old when he died suddenly in March 2016. Jeffrey Blomkvist was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect at 40-years old and placed on a donor list in 2014.
On March 7, 2016, Blomkvist received Burlew’s heart during a transplant procedure at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
This Sunday, in an emotional meeting, Burlew’s parents, daughter and niece got the chance to meet Blomkvist and his family in person for the first time.
Before the meeting, Joey’s mother Christine of Union said, “I’m nervous, but Joey’s living on.” She said she has spoken and emailed several times with Blomkvist of Asbury, NJ. “He is extremely grateful,” Christine said. “This meeting is for both of us. I think he wants to hear that it’s ok that he goes on.”
When Blomkvist entered the room at the New Jersey Sharing Network in New Providence, there were tears and hugs all around. Blomkvist, 46, was accompanied by his wife Melissa and three teenage daughters.
Christine said Burlew saved six lives by donating his heart, liver, both kidneys and both lungs. She said she wrote letters to all six recipients via the New Jersey Sharing Network. An exchange of correspondence and phone calls then ensued between Christine and Blomkvist.
“You saved him,” said Blomkvist’s wife Melissa to the Burlews, “but you saved all of us.” Melissa said Blomkvist honors Joey every day. “Every single day. He really does.”
“I feel like I’m living for two,” said Blomkvist.
Blomkvist and his wife presented Christine and Joe a gift -- a stuffed dog named Cotton, with a chip inside that plays the recorded heartbeat of Blomkvist. Cotton was Burlew’s dog, now living with his parents.
Blomkvist also presented a framed photo of his extended family to the Burlew’s. “This is just a testament of how much joy Joey brings us,” he said.
Christine and Joe presented Blomkvist with a stuffed heart made of material from one of Joey’s shirts. “We’ll keep this on our bed always,” said Melissa.
Blomkvist was on an LVAD, a surgically implanted mechanical pump attached to his heart, for 15 months prior to the transplant. Melissa said when they first heard that a heart had become available, “the first thing I thought of was that because he’s getting this, someone is losing their life. And you can’t lose sight of that.” Melissa said the family thinks about that all of the time. “It’s not taken for granted. It’s not taken lightly. The ripple effort is tremendous.”
Blomkvist and his wife said the transplant surgery took many hours and was difficult because of Blomkvist’s previous heart surgeries. When the surgeon came out, he said there were some complications, but “the heart is beautiful.” According to Blomkvist, he is now doing great.
Linda Woznicki, Family Serivces Coordinator at the New Jersey Sharing Network, said of the six donations Burlew provided all had “immediate function”, meaning they were all immediately successful.
Christine said Joey was an EMT in Bayonne and was named EMT of the Year in 2008 for his bravery during the rescue of a woman who drove into the Newark Bay that year. His daughter Airyana is now 10 years old. Christina recounted the day he passed his driver’s test when he was 17 and called to tell her that he signed up to be an organ donor. “That’s great,” Christine had said. “Did you pass your test?”
Christine showed the Blomkvist’s a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine articles about the 2008 rescue, titled 'Lucky to be Alive'. “I put this together for him as a Christmas gift in 2015,” she said. “Just a few months before he died.”
“Joey can live on and still make people happy,” Christine said.