Eight-year-old Avery Toole loves second grade, crafts and unicorns, and fills her days running, singing and playing like any other little girl – all because a little boy’s heart saved her life.
Avery and her parents, Mike and Cheryl Toole, have forged the tightest of bonds with the family who saved their daughter despite their own heartbreak. Jim and Jeri Lawyer lost their son Dalton in 2009, but donated his organs. Now, Dalton’s little brothers consider Avery to be their sister.
Says Avery: “I have Dalton’s heart inside me.”
The families were joined forever in early August 2009 as they both prayed for different miracles 700 miles apart. In Boston, the Tooles were at Avery’s bedside as doctors told them that their daughter, born with a rare heart defect, wouldn’t survive without a transplant.
In Toledo, Ohio, Jim and Jeri Lawyer wept by the bedside of their son, Dalton, 8, who was hit by a truck while riding his bike on a family vacation. When doctors declared Dalton brain-dead, the Lawyers immediately agreed to donate his organs and the Tooles’ prayers were answered.
“I think Dalton’s heart was destined for Avery,” says Dalton’s father, Jim Lawyer, 52.
Now, both families meet several times a year, with Dalton’s 9-year-old triplet brothers Austin, Miles and Tai swimming, building forts and playing hide and seek with Avery. The boys tell Avery stories about Dalton, and she lets them place their heads against her chest and listen to their brother’s heart.
“I loved my brother,” Austin says, “and now I love Avery. She is one awesome sister.”
The grown-ups, meanwhile, have been working to increase organ donation awareness by sharing their story. The Tooles raise money for Children’s Hospital Boston where Avery spent so much of her early years. Dalton’s image will be featured in this year’s Donate Life Rose Parade Float.
Tragedy and Hope
For Mike and Cheryl Toole, the unmitigated joy of their baby girl’s birth lasted less than 24 hours. At 1 day old, Avery was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare heart defect. Mike, 43, a TV news producer, and Cheryl, 45, a neonatal nurse at Children’s Hospital Boston, tried to give Avery a normal childhood. But by the time she’d reached kindergarten, she’d been through eight open-heart surgeries.
“She was slowly dying,” says Cheryl. “We talked to her about heaven. We tried to prepare her.”
Unlike Avery, Dalton Lawyer led a charmed life with his family in College Station, Texas. A swimmer who loved superheroes and roller coasters, he got the nickname “Diesel” for his turbo-charged approach to life. He displayed his trademark attitude that July 30 afternoon, rushing out of his aunt’s house to catch up with cousins at a nearby park. “I love you, Mom!” he called out.
Minutes later a truck hit him head-on. His frantic mother rushed to his crumpled body and began CPR. But Jeri, a former nurse, knew his condition was dire.
“We were devastated,” says Jim. “We were basket cases.”
On Aug. 6, the Tooles got the call: “A perfect heart,” they were told, was on the way. Searching the Internet, Cheryl found Dalton’s story in the news. Says Cheryl: “I told Mike, ‘That’s him. I just know.’ ”
Ignoring advice to wait at least a year before reaching out to a donor family, Cheryl sent a heartfelt letter of thanks just three months later.
Jim immediately responded to the Tooles. “I miss my boy terribly,” he wrote, sharing stories about “the boy who answered your prayers.” The families agreed to meet on the first anniversary of Dalton’s death and Avery’s transplant. “Friends thought we were crazy,” says Jeri, 51.
But the meeting went so well for all of them that they’ve made a habit of getting together several times a year and are planning a visit for the fall.
“Dalton saved Avery,” says Cheryl. “And we’ve been given a new family.”
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