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Heart transplant recipient meets relatives, friends of crash victim

Yolanda Beavers, a heart recipient from Texas, met Carolyn Corbett (right), the mother of donor Kristen Corbett, who died in a car crash.

Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe

Yolanda Beavers, a heart recipient from Texas, met Carolyn Corbett (right), the mother of donor Kristen Corbett, who died in a car crash.

BILLERICA ­­— Of the many neighbors, friends, and loved ones of Glenn and Carolyn Corbett who joined a 5-kilometer charity race Saturday in memory of their daughter, perhaps no one had a closer connection than Yolanda Beavers.

Soon after Kristen Corbett was killed in Texas in an automobile accident nearly three years ago, Beavers, a San Antonio resident with a rapidly worsening coronary condition, received the young woman’s heart.

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Saturday was the first time Beavers met the family whose daughter posthumously saved her life.

“I’m overwhelmed by the emotion here,” Beavers told a crowd of hundreds who had completed the race, her voice shaking. “I can tell Kristen had a lot of family and friends. I love you all.”

Kristen Corbett

Kristen Corbett

Carolyn Corbett also had to fight back tears when she recalled the night when the eldest of her four children died.

For Carolyn and Glenn and their three children, the pain has not vanished, merely waned. But on Saturday, meeting the recipient of their daughter’s heart provided a bright moment.

“Every day you live with the loss of her,” Carolyn Corbett said. “You have this hole in your heart. But today is really a celebration of Kristen.”

Kristen Corbett was a student at Austin Community College when her father was awakened late one night in December 2009 by phones that would not stop ringing.

First it was his cellphone, buzzing away as he slept. Then it was the house phone, said Glenn Corbett, 50, of Wilmington.

“It was a doctor,” Corbett recounted Saturday. “He said, ‘Your daughter’s had a real bad head injury.’ ”

More than 2,100 miles away, 20-year-old Kristen lay motionless in a hospital bed at University Medical Center at Brackenridge in Austin. Hours earlier, while driving home from a Wednesday evening spent with friends, Corbett lost control of her Nissan Altima, ran off the road, and struck a tree. She was not wearing a seat belt.

When the doctors told Glenn Corbett not to rush to Texas, Kristen’s father did not immediately understand.

“It didn’t register,” Corbett said, repeating the doctor’s words: “‘Your daughter is brain dead.’ ”

When he and his wife reached the hospital the next day, only one major decision remained for the grief-stricken parents.

“’Do we want to donate her organs?’” Carolyn Corbett recalled saying. “‘If it comes to that, it comes to that.’ And then it did.”

Beavers also remembers a phone call that changed her life forever.

It was about 10 p.m. on Dec. 10, 2009, less than a day after Corbett’s crash, when Beavers, gaunt from weeks of blood loss and exhausted after nine years fighting an irreversible heart condition, was leaning on a walker near the nursing station in a Dallas intensive care unit. She heard the phone ring.

“I knew that call was for me,” recalled Beavers, beaming.

Yolanda Beavers, a heart recipient from Texas, met Glenn Corbett, (with hat) father of donor Kristen Corbett, who died in a car accident while at college in Texas.

Rose lincoln for The Boston Globe

Yolanda Beavers, a heart recipient from Texas, met Glenn Corbett, (with hat) father of donor Kristen Corbett, who died in a car accident while at college in Texas.

After she was diagnosed in 2000 with dilated cardiomyopathy, in which the heart swells and weakens, Beavers endured seemingly endless tests, EKGs, and proddings by a small army of cardiologists in her home of San Antonio, and later in Dallas, where her insurance company required that she receive care.

Surgeons operated to install one pacemaker in 2001, only to replace it two years later with a second, better model.

She underwent a failed valve repair surgery in 2004, and doctors tried again in 2007 to replace it.

Yet her heart weakened more and more, and she grew increasingly frail. About every two years, her condition would worsen, doctors would confer, and she would undergo a new procedure.

By early November 2009, her prognosis was dim. Beavers was admitted to the intensive care unit.

After years of wrangling with insurance companies and doctors, she was placed on a waiting list to receive a donor heart.

Her stay in the ICU would eventually stretch to 36 days.

Weeks passed, and on day 30 — during her daily attempt at exercise, hunched over the walker — she heard that call. She said she knew even before the doctors gave her the news.

“I said, ‘They have the heart,’” Beavers recalled. “I knew I was going to get better, and there was a reason for me to live.”

Six days later, Beavers was up and strolling the halls, with a new heart.

Beavers’ visit with the Corbett family is rare in the transplant world, where both parties must consent to being contacted by the other, and even then, there are no guarantees of a joyful meeting.

But the Corbetts seemed on Saturday to have welcomed Beavers, who walked the 5-kilometer course as one of their own.

At the Billerica Elks Club after the walk, Beavers was a celebrity among Kristen’s closest friends. One after the other, people approached her, arms outstretched for hugs, of which she seemed to provide an endless supply.

Then it was Katelyn Foley’s turn.

Tears streamed down the 23-year-old Foley’s face as she and Beavers drew each other into a long embrace. Foley, who was one of Kristen Corbett’s closest friends, was reluctant to release Beavers.

Then, she extended the palm of her hand toward Beavers’s chest.

“Can I?”

Beavers nodded.

Slowly, Foley pressed her hand onto the woman’s chest, and felt, for the first time in three years, the beating of her friend’s heart.

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.
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