One of the first things Mindy Agler of Key Largo did when she met Martha Lefebvre of the Washington, D.C. area for the first time last week was listen to Lefebvre's heart beat.
When Agler heard one quick double beat in the midst of Lefebvre's normal heart rhythm, she didn't need to be told what it was. Her daughter Talia, she said, was reaching out to her.
"It's surreal," an emotional Agler said a short time later. "Oh my God. That's my daughter's heart in there."
The lives of Mindy and her husband Richard Agler were turned upside down in one horrific moment on Jan. 27, 2012, when Talia Agler, their second of three children, was struck and killed by a van while jogging along the National Mall in Washington. At the age of 26, Tali, as her friends and loved ones called her, was vibrant, vivacious, outgoing and bubbly.
"The main thing was she was all about making the world a better place. That was her passion," Richard said.
Talia was pursuing that passion by working for a U.S. government contractor that runs aid projects in the developing world. She was also a strong supporter and former intern of a training center for disadvantaged domestic workers in Kenya. She was so respected at the facility, in fact, that the center renamed its shelter for trafficked and abused girls after Talia shortly after her death.
Talia's devotion to helping others also manifested itself in another way. She had made the decision to have the organ donor stamp on her driver's license. As a result, her liver, pancreas, both kidneys and one lung were used for transplants in the immediate aftermath of her fatal accident.
So was Talia's heart.
The recipient was Martha, a mother of three and a former school district administrative assistant who lives in the town of Damascus, Md., which is located about 40 minutes outside Washington. Now 62, Martha nearly lost her life in 2008 when she had three heart attacks in six hours, her husband Bart said. Intensive long-term medical care kept her alive, but her heart never truly recovered. About a year before her transplant, Martha had a pump, called a ventricular assistance device, implanted in her chest to assist with her blood flow.
The device, though, had a major impact on Martha's quality of life. It was connected to an external computer, which Martha had to carry at all times when outside her house. At home, she plugged into a control unit.
Making the connection
As a default, organ transplantation is an anonymous process. Recipients don't find out whose organ they're getting. Donors' loved ones aren't told about the recipient.
But if both the recipient and the donor's next-of-kin sign a consent form, then the names are revealed.
Martha waited approximately a month before signing that form. Then, through an organ donor network intermediary, she sent a note to the Aglers, whose identity she did not yet know.
Mindy didn't know Martha's identity yet either, but the content of the message was moving.
"It said she got a perfect heart," Mindy remembered last week, as tears welled in her eyes.
In fact, Martha's recovery from the transplant has been smooth since day one.
"I've never had any sign of rejection," she said.
It was more than a year before Mindy was ready to sign the consent form. By then, Richard was already on board. The Aglers and the Lefebvres learned each others' identities, and soon thereafter, Mindy contacted Martha via email.
Moved, Martha began learning about the young woman whose tragic death had given her new life. She read about Talia on a commemorative website, walked the National Mall where the accident happened and learned about Talia's work.
The seeds of last week's meeting were sown, but they weren't finalized until April 8, when the Lefebvres went to George Washington University Hospital in D.C. to represent Talia at a flag-raising ceremony conducted in honor of National Organ Donation Month. Inspired by the rare gesture of a recipient toward a donor, a Washington-area transplant organizer contacted the news team at WRC, the local NBC affiliate. The network decided to arrange for the Lebebvres' trip to Key Largo to meet the Aglers. WRC also sent a news crew to cover the encounter.
Last Wednesday, April 24, the camera rolled as the two couples strolled the nature trail of the Hilton Key Largo Resort. On the one hand they were strangers, the Aglers and the Lefebvres. On the other hand they shared one of the most intense and intimate bonds imaginable.
Upon meeting, the two couples "blubbered and hugged," as Bart described it. Mindy listened to the beat of Martha's young heart -- the heart that came from her beloved Tali. Martha showed Richard and Mindy her former pacemaker, which doctors were able to remove because of the transplant.
The couples learned about each other. They suffered through mixed emotions that were both shared and wholly distinct. And through it all, they felt Talia's presence, both literally and spiritually.
"I have a heart from their daughter that is beating inside of me," Martha said. "She not only helped people through her life but after her death with her organs. Her life is still going in. She's with me every day."
"There's no words to describe this," added Richard, as he looked toward a healthy and now machine-free Martha. "That's the gift of life."
Register to be an organ donor by going to the local Department of Motor Vehicles office or to donatelifeflorida.org.