From daddy to donor: Woman hopes to hear her father's heart beating in chest of Oregon man

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJune 14, 2014 

Elibeth Bautista knows exactly what she'll do when Phil Weitz steps off the plane in Hawaii.

She'll run up to him and wrap him in a tight hug.

She'll cry, no question. That's a given.

And she'll listen -- maybe with a stethoscope she'll buy especially for that moment -- to the lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub coming from beneath the long, red scar on Weitz's chest.

"It's going to be really, really special," Bautista, 31, told the Herald. "It's going to be amazing."

Her father -- who would be 52 now, just a few years younger than Weitz -- died after an accident in 2012. His family decided to donate his organs. His liver and kidneys went to recipients in California, Bautista said.

His heart went to Weitz, a friendly, lanky Umatilla-area man with a daughter of his own.

Weitz and Bautista have connected with each other in the past few months, talking first via letter and then regular phone calls and texts.

They're planning to meet in person in December, when Weitz will join Bautista, her soldier husband and their young daughter for Christmas.

It's an uncommon bond -- not all that many organ transplant recipients and donor families forge friendships and meet face-to-face.

It can be emotional, painful territory.

But for Weitz and Bautista, it's been healing.

Weitz, 57, said Bautista is something special. He cares for her. She feels like family.

Bautista feels a connection too.

"I can't explain it -- I know my dad is not here with me. I know he's in heaven. But I can still have part of my dad here with me, because he's with Phil," she said. "His heart is with Phil."

From one father to another

Gabriel Barrera was walking to an ATM after work one evening in late November 2012 when he fainted and hit his head, suffering a devastating brain injury. He was 50 years old then, with four children, including Bautista.

Bautista described her father as kind and hardworking. A native of Mexico, he drove a cab in his home country and came to the U.S. in hopes of making a better life for his family.

He worked as a farm laborer and fixed cars part time. He was the type of person who would go out of his way to help a friend -- loaning money, offering rides, his daughter said. And he'd repay any kindness he was shown tenfold.

Bautista was living in Texas, where her husband, Juan, was stationed with the Army, when she got the call about her father's accident. She rushed to the Fresno, Calif., area -- Barrera was living there -- to be at his side. Nothing could be done.

Bautista was close with her father, and he'd talked to her about death, about what he would want. She knew h would want to keep helping others through organ donation, she said.

As her family was saying goodbye to Barrera, Weitz was waiting for the call that would mean a second chance. He'd suffered a heart attack in February of that year and developed an infection, spending two months in the hospital.

A mechanical pump helped keep blood flowing while he waited for a transplant. He also needed a pacemaker-defibrillator in case his damaged heart slipped into an abnormal rhythm.

The first call came about a week before Thanksgiving 2012, sending Weitz in a frenzy to the hospital. He had moved temporarily from Oregon to Spokane to be near his doctors at Sacred Heart Medical Center. When his phone rang he was in the grocery store arranging a take-out turkey dinner for when his family arrived for the holiday.

That call turned out to a false alarm -- the heart wasn't suitable. A second call came a few days later, but that heart also fell through.

Then on Dec. 2, 2012, Weitz got a third call, early in the morning. The surgery happened that evening -- Barrera's heart transplanted into Weitz's chest, from one father to another.

Weitz woke up motivated. He still had a breathing tube and "all these IVs hooked up to me," he recalled, but he wanted out of bed.

He'd felt so ill -- so weak -- after his heart attack and infection, and he didn't want to slip back to that. He was walking around that night, he said.

As Weitz focused on gaining strength and recovering, he also thought about his donor. He knew almost nothing about the man, not even his name. He thought about the man's family.

He wanted to reach out, to find a way to express his thanks. So he wrote a letter, sharing a little about himself. "I gave (the family) my name ... I had two children, some grandchildren -- one grandchild then. I was a mechanic. I was so grateful. I let them know how grateful I was, and blessed that I got their (loved one's) heart."

'Daddy was like that too'

The letter made its way to Bautista, and she held onto it for months, not quite ready to write back.

She'd had a tough time with her father's death.

They had talked often -- Bautista calling her father for cooking advice, to check in.

She'd struggled to have a child, and Barrera was encouraging. "My daddy said, 'I promise you, girl, 2012 is your year,' " Bautista recalled.

He was right. Little Zoe was born in October, the month before Barrera's fall. Grandfather and granddaughter never got the chance to meet.

Bautista sees some similarities between her father and the man who now has his heart.

"When (Weitz) sees a post on Facebook about me being sad, he calls me and says, 'Are you OK?' That was my dad," Bautista said. "He's also really humble, and my daddy was like that too."

Weitz, who is divorced, grew up in Colfax, went to college in Spokane and spent years working as a boiler and refrigeration mechanic for a potato processing plant in Hermiston. His son, Jordan, 28, has two kids of his own. His daughter, Stephanie, 31, is a nurse in the Portland area.

Stephanie said her father has been a source of encouragement. "He's supportive of whatever I'm doing. He's my loudest cheering section, no matter what -- school, career. He's always been there for me. You can't ask for much more than that."

He's the type of person who never met a stranger he couldn't talk to, Stephanie said. She recalled road trips growing up when he would get to chatting with locals and wind up with the scoop on the best trails and restaurants.

She's grateful to Barrera and his family, she said, and she's proud of her father for making changes in his life to improve his health.

Weitz had been a smoker who didn't keep a close eye on his Type 1 diabetes. But he's given up cigarettes and is committed to taking care of himself -- to show respect to Barrera and his heart, and make the most of his second chance.

"Every day I wake up and I thank God, I thank Sacred Heart and I thank my donor. I never forget him -- what he's done for me," Weitz said.

"I smell things differently now. I appreciate birds chirping when I go outside," he said.

"I don't take anything for granted. Nothing."

'Very good hands'

When she was ready, Bautista enlisted her husband to help her write Weitz a reply letter.

"Dear Phil: My name is Elibeth and you received my father's heart," she wrote in neat print. "I'm so happy that you are doing well."

Bautista wrote that she'd like to exchange contact information, to perhaps meet in person one day. They now talk often by phone and text.

It's been easy and comfortable, both said.

Their bond is uncommon, but special.

Bautista and her husband and daughter have come to mean a great deal to Weitz, he said. He'll be there if they ever need him. "I don't see (the bond) ever going away."

Bautista is not looking for a father figure in Weitz, she said. But getting to know him has helped her.

She looks forward to Christmas -- to meeting Weitz in person, to introducing him to her daughter. They'll have a Christmas tree, a luau.

Bautista will lean in and listen. Lub-dub, lub-dub.

"Everything happens for a reason. It was my daddy's time to go. I had to accept that. It was not Phil's time to go. He had something important to do here. I think he's already doing that, by being in my life. He's helping me a lot. I feel my daddy's spirit around me, I really do," Bautista said.

"We're excited. We can't wait for December. It's going to be amazing," she said. "I know my daddy is really happy that Phil is still here, and that his heart landed in very good hands."

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