FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Zack Kelly always had a strong heart—and 13 months after the young man died in a horrific car accident, his mother desperately wanted to hear his powerful heart beating inside another person’s body.
That’s why Melanie Kelly brought her pale pink stethoscope to the clubhouse of Lake Wilderness in Spotsylvania County Saturday afternoon. LifeNet Health, the Virginia Beach organization that arranged for Zack’s organ transplants, had set up a meeting between her and Tim Bibey, the 52-year-old who got his heart.
The two hugged at first, then took a few steps back to talk, while about 40 members of their families looked on. Bibey told her how he’d always been healthy, never even needed a doctor, until an unknown infection started his decline in August 2016.
By the following year, his heart couldn’t pump properly, causing his lungs to fill up with fluid. Then, the carpenter who’d spent 32 years building log homes—and had never smoked, drank or used drugs—lost so much strength and weight during a monthlong hospital stay, his wife and son had to carry him into their house.
But since December 2017, when Zack Kelly’s 21-year-old heart was put in Tim Bibey’s chest, the older man has started to feel like himself again—and then some. He’s been to almost 40 appointments at VCU Medical Center in Richmond to have his heart checked and “aced them all,” he told Melanie Kelly.
“You got the best heart around,” the mother responded.
“It’s strong, trust me,” he said.
Then, Bibey asked if she was ready. Both looked a little nervous, and the mother took a deep breath.
She reached for the stethoscope she carried as a longtime first responder and approached Bibey.
He wore a sky-blue T-shirt which read, “The greatest hero I never knew was the organ donor who saved my life.” He lifted the bottom of it, and she slipped the instrument under it.
Melanie Kelly moved the bell-shaped piece around for a second, then gasped.
She had found the lub-DUB, lub-DUB, lub-DUB she sought, the same “strong-as-a-jackhammer” sound heard when she listened to Zack’s heartbeat when he was a kid.
With one hand on the stethoscope, she clasped the other over her mouth, overjoyed and overcome with emotion at the same time.
So were lots of other people, who reached for the tissues that had been placed on every table.
“Oh, God, that sounds so good,” she said, crying.
“Doesn’t it?” Bibey replied. “Isn’t that amazing? How strong is it?”
“That’s my baby boy written all over you,” she said.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
Saturday was the first official meeting between the families, but fate had brought them together before.
Eight months to the day after Bibey had his transplant, he was in the CVS at Lake of the Woods. The pharmacist knew his history and asked how he was doing.
In line that same moment was Kathy Kelly, Zack’s grandmother. She overheard the conversation and wondered, could he be the recipient? Bibey seemed a little hyper, and the grandmother couldn’t help thinking he reminded her a little of her oldest grandson.
She went outside the store and waited for Bibey in the August heat.
He bounded outside, saw her and wondered in a friendly tone: “Did you lose me?”
When she asked the date and place of his transplant—and heard Dec. 8 in Richmond—she almost passed out. He even reached for her, to make sure she was OK.
Then, the two shared their stories, and tears came to both. Bibey’s next words echoed the nervousness he felt meeting Melanie Kelly face to face on Saturday.
How could he express his sorry for their loss? And gratitude for a second chance?
“There’s not enough words on this earth,” Bibey said.
Kathy Kelly was a bit overwhelmed. She wasn’t just “MaMaw” to Zack, she’d been a second mother. He and Melanie had lived with her and her husband, Denny Kelly, from the time Zack was born. The grandma had been in the delivery room, had cut the newborn’s umbilical cord.
Losing him was the hardest thing she’d ever been through, and here she was at the local drugstore, talking to a man who might have part of her grandson inside him.
What were the odds?
It seemed too impossible to be true.
But there was more to the story.
Bibey and his wife, Lisa, lived three miles from the Kellys in Spotsylvania. The Bibeys had two sons about the same age as Zack, and all three had attended Riverbend High School. They knew of each other and probably passed in the hallways countless times.
Fate intervened again when Melanie Kelly was paying her personal property taxes at Spotsylvania Courthouse. In line with her was one of Bibey’s four sisters, who was talking with the clerk—a relative—about Bibey’s heart transplant.
Melanie Kelly overheard and put two and two together.
The families started texting and calling each other in November. They didn’t meet in person until Saturday, but after getting official word from LifeNet that Bibey was the recipient, the Kellys had been keeping up with his medical appointments.
“We totally circumvented the whole system,” Melanie Kelly said.
GOOD FROM BAD
Seeing the families together was the perfect example of something good coming out of a tragic situation, said Dr. Corey Wright, trauma surgeon at Mary Washington Hospital.
Wright and his team tried to save the life of Zachary Aaron Kelly after a vehicle accident on Dec. 5, 2017, on U.S. 17 in Stafford County. Another driver had made a U-turn and pulled out in front of Kelly, and his injuries were so severe, he couldn’t be saved.
He was declared brain dead, though his mother said his heart never stopped beating.
“He fought so hard for my boy,” Melanie Kelly said about Wright, “I couldn’t not have him here today.”
Wright has been on both sides of the table, both as a doctor preparing organs for transplants, and during his training, on a team that put them in place. Still, he’d never witnessed this other “surreal” side, seeing the impact the donation had on all affected.
“I feel honored to be here,” Wright said, as he talked with members of both families.
Zack Kelly had wanted to be an organ donor since middle school, his grandmother said. A transplant had changed a classmate’s life, and he wanted to do the same for others.
One person can save eight lives through donations of the heart, liver, pancreas, two lungs and two kidneys. Every day, 20 people die waiting for a transplant, according to the U.S. Government Information on Organ Donation and Transplantation.
Zack Kelly’s muscle and tissue also were transplanted, and his mother said his corneas helped a person see again.
A man who got one of his kidneys was on his deathbed and had needed dialysis every day of the week, she said.
But of all those helped by organs from her only child, Melanie Kelly prayed the most for the person who got his heart.
She knew how damaged it was in the accident. It had a tear in the aorta from the impact of the crash, and the left ventricle had collapsed. Still, the mother knew if it was viable, it would change a person’s life.
She saw, and heard, that for herself on Saturday after meeting Bibey.
“He said he’s got energy now he never had,” the mother said. “I know where he got it from.”
Saturday was the first time the families met, but they said it won’t be the last.
“We’ll be friends forever,” Melanie Kelly said.
Bibey’s wife, Lisa, said the same, praising the other mother for how she’s handled the situation. “She’s very strong to go through this.”
Melanie Kelly wants to hear how Bibey is doing, and she continues to pray that the 38 pills he takes daily will keep his body from rejecting her son’s heart. She’s also curious to know what new foods he craves—green peppers, fettuccine Alfredo or Brussels sprouts—that her son also enjoyed.
After the mom heard her son’s heartbeat again, she seemed to have trouble breaking the connection. She held her palm on his chest, then rested her head against it.
Bibey said his heart was open to her and her stethoscope.
“Anytime you want to hear it,” he offered, and she jumped at it.
“I’ll call you,” she responded.