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Cape Girardeau teacher meets family of teen who provided her new heart
Colin Osterberg wrote poetry and short stories, and when he died last November at 16 he was writing a novel about a young man finding his way in the world. "I understand the light and the dark/I say what life is and what is expected/I dream of the wonders that are here," he wrote in a poem titled "I Am Who is Watched and Watches."
Colin also was only two merit badges and a service project shy of becoming an Eagle Scout, just as his three older brothers had become. Two weeks ago in Festus, Mo., Colin's family gathered to accept for him the Spirit of the Eagle Award, an honor given by the Boy Scouts to boys who have died through illness or an accident.
Becky Stein and her family drove from Cape Girardeau to witness that ceremony and to meet Colin's family for the first time. Becky didn't know Colin, but his heart beats inside her chest.
Becky received her heart transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on Nov. 19, the day after Colin was officially declared dead. In the weeks and months afterward she began communicating with the Osterberg family, at first anonymously through Mid-America Transplant Services. The Osterbergs sent her the slide show presented at Colin's memorial service. Then they invited Becky, her husband Robert and their 7-year-old daughter Hallie to meet them at the Spirit of the Eagle ceremony.
Becky was uncertain how meeting them would go. "I didn't know if it would make them feel sad or be a comfort," she said.
But the Osterbergs were anxious to meet the 36-year-old after talking with her over the phone and reading her journal entries on CaringBridge.org, which hosts free websites for anyone going through a critical illness or period of recovery. Becky promised them she would take good care of Colin's heart.
"Some people commented and I think it's true,' Colin's father Keith said, "when we hugged Becky it was almost like we were hugging Colin."
Right after Hallie's birth in 2002, Becky began having trouble taking deep breaths and could not lie down. Soon she was in the cardiac emergency unit at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where doctors removed a long blood clot and told the Steins they should say their goodbyes. Doctors determined Becky had had a stroke and eventually diagnosed her with restrictive cardiomyopathy. The condition, which prevents blood from flowing freely in the heart, usually occurs in people who are much older than Stein. She also has a genetic disorder that can cause blood clots.
Doctors told her she could live a number of years with the condition but said a heart transplant would eventually be necessary.
Five years later surgeons gave her a pacemaker. When she began having trouble walking across a room last summer, doctors put her on a new heart medication that required wearing a fanny pack attached to an IV line. Tests showed she was eligible for the heart transplant list.
Heart transplant patients can wait for months to find a compatible match. Becky couldn't have known that only two weeks later she'd have a new heart.
Colin was a 5-foot, 4-inch teenager who never showed any signs of the brain tumor that quickly ended his life. He developed a bad headache one Sunday in November and stayed home from Festus High School the following day. Colin's mother, Carolyn, was off work from her nursing job that day. That afternoon, Colin lost consciousness and fell off the sofa. Carolyn gave him CPR. Colin was taken first to Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Festus and then flown to Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis.
Surgeons at Cardinal Glennon attempted to relieve the pressure that the tumor they discovered was causing in his brain, but Colin never regained consciousness. Multiple tests detected no brain function.
The decision to donate Colin's organs had already been made. "My wife having a medical background and everything, she knew as soon as probably anybody he was lost to us," Keith said. "We told the medical staff that would be our wishes."
The official day of Colin's death was Tuesday, Nov. 18. The hospital notified Mid-America Transplant Services and kept Colin's body on a ventilator to keep oxygen flowing to his organs. In addition to his heart, he donated his corneas, skin, blood, liver, kidneys and bone marrow.
A man in his 70s received Colin's liver. Colin's corneas went to a man in his 50s. His heart was reserved for Becky Stein.
Transplant candidates must be ready when an organ becomes available. The Steins each had a bag packed. Becky, who teaches at Nell Holcomb School in Cape Girardeau, had arranged for two friends who work there to drive her and Hallie to St. Louis if the call came when she was at school. Robert was teaching in Greenville in Wayne County at the time.
Hallie, then a first-grader at Nell Holcomb, was only told that her mother was going to get a new heart. "We had done as much as we could to keep her unaware of how serious it was," Robert said.
Becky was just pulling into her parking space at school when the school secretary called to say Barnes-Jewish had phoned. Teacher friends gathered and hugged her before sending her off to St. Louis. Cell phone reception in Greenville is spotty, but Robert soon picked up the message and beat everyone to St. Louis. The transplant operation began at 4 that afternoon and was over in an hour and a half. By 10:45 p.m., Becky, her husband and daughter, her mother, her father from Georgia, her two stepfathers and her school friends were able to peek in at her.
Bittersweet is the word the Steins use to describe their feelings about the transplant day. "You know it's a joyous day for you but a tragedy for someone else," Robert said.
But Becky's own life was far from safe. Though she was walking three days after the operation, her blood pressure soon began swinging wildly. Adjusting the amount of drugs being given her solved the problem.
Her hospital recovery lasted another three weeks.
Soon enough Becky was Christmas shopping at the mall, though she had to wear a mask. She still wears a mask to do yard work and for now can't eat from buffets because of the possibility of ingesting bacteria. She must take drugs that suppress her immune system for the rest of her life; otherwise, her body would reject Colin's heart.
But her stamina has returned. Recalling a Halloween when she wasn't strong enough to walk the neighborhood with her daughter, Becky said she and Hallie now play their old chasing games. "Now I have to tell her to keep up."
The Osterberg family lives in Herculaneum, Mo., but has many Cape Girardeau ties. Both of Colin's parents, Carolyn and Keith, graduated from Southeast Missouri State University, as did the Steins. Colin's oldest brother, Kyle, 26, is an assistant manager at a BP station in Cape Girardeau. Brother James, 24, is an art education student at Southeast who will do his student teaching this fall. Thomas, 23, works at Cottonwood Treatment Center and will graduate from Southeast this summer with a psychology degree.
Because he was so much younger than his brothers, Colin looked up to them a great deal and wanted to make them proud of him, his father said. He was in the Festus High School Drama Club and choir. The week he died, dress rehearsals began for a play he was to act in. Becky has discovered that she and Colin liked some of the same books, including the Harry Potter series. "If we'd known each other in high school, we probably would have been friends," she said.
In addition to gratitude, she feels a responsibility toward Colin and his family. "It's one I'm glad to have," she said. "I'm glad to have the heart of such a great kid."
She has seen pictures of Colin when he was her own daughter's age. The bittersweetness is always there. "It's harder because I'm a mom," she said.
"... He still had a lot of growing up to do. To see life end for him while giving me a second chance at my own ..." she said, her voice trailing away.
Becky gives herself no credit for getting through this. The prayers and fundraisers by the Steins' schools, doctors, family, friends and especially God brought them through, she said. And Colin and the Osterbergs.
Keith, a communications instructor at Allied College in Fenton, Mo., said meeting Becky and her family has helped.
"When you go through this sort of tragedy, there aren't a whole lot of things you can look to and feel good about," he said. "Knowing that Becky was able to live on and now be able to raise her daughter, that's something. It does make you feel good and feel proud of him. And to know in a tangible sort of way that part of him lives on."