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At the Crossroads of Life and Death, Friendship Awaits

This could have been a story about life dealing people such blows that they never get up. It could have been about two lives that never should have intersected. Never should have, that is, if there were such a thing as predictability in human events or human behavior.

But because there isn’t and because you never know what people can do, it’s a story about the richness of humanity. It’s about what’s possible when people follow their best instincts.

Here are the two stories it could have been about:

On Sept. 10, 1990, 64-year-old Murray Kessler of Los Alamitos was near death. He’d had two heart attacks that year, and doctors couldn’t guarantee him much more time without a transplant.

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That same day, 17-year-old Lauren Bonas, after a lifetime of brain damage, died after suffering a seizure and lapsing into a coma.

Here’s what happened after that.

Lauren’s parents, Lynn and Gene Bonas of Orange, decided without delay that all of her major organs would be donated. The next day, Lauren Bonas’ heart went into Murray Kessler’s chest. Doctors at Hoag Hospital, where Lauren had been born, performed the transplant. Neither family knew the other’s identity.

Several months later, Lynn Bonas was home reading an article about a Hoag transplant recipient named Morris Kessler but whom everyone called “Murray.” Near the end of the article, a line made Bonas scream so loud it scared her two surviving daughters: “The donor was a 17-year-old girl who had died of brain seizures.”

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“I was crying, I was freaking,” Lynn Bonas recalled last week as we talked at a restaurant in Anaheim. Bonas telephoned Hoag’s transplant

coordinator and said: “This man has my daughter’s heart, right?”

Until then, she’d had no burning interest in knowing. She’d accepted the policy mantra that it’s best if people on both sides not meet. But now what, now that she’d stumbled upon the man who had her daughter’s heart?

Meanwhile, Kessler had not forgotten why he was alive. Working through the Hoag staff, the article quoted Kessler as saying he’d written an open letter to his donor’s family (not knowing their names), thanking them.

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Having never received the letter, Bonas wanted it. Respecting Kessler’s comment in the article that he didn’t want to meet the donor family, Bonas told Hoag she just wanted to read his letter.

She got it and wrote back, identifying herself only as “donor parent.” Months later, Kessler wrote again, and Bonas replied promptly. “It was comforting to know this man was healthy and wrote great letters,” Bonas says. “I knew his name, but he didn’t know mine. That was kind of fun.”

After a couple years of occasional but always anonymous correspondence, Kessler asked to meet Bonas.

A week later, they met at Kessler’s home. Bonas went alone, a nervous wreck. “Before I left my house, I started to cry. I called my dad, which I did in any crisis, whether I had a hangnail or it was something big, and asked if I was doing the right thing. My dad said, ‘Of course, you’re doing the right thing.’ ”

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Bonas met Kessler and his wife, Addie. For the first time, the Kesslers learned that Bonas was Japanese. They broke the ice when they hugged and Bonas tapped Kessler’s chest and asked how it felt “knowing you’ve got a little Japanese in you.” Murray countered by asking how she felt about Lauren’s heart going into a Jewish body.

Bonas brought a picture of Lauren. The Kesslers showed videos of how sickly Murray was before the transplant. They became friends on the spot and would tell each other over the years that divine intervention brought them together, especially when Bonas realized how fluky it was that she’d seen the article. They discovered that Kessler’s daughter shared Lauren’s birthday.

Bonas stayed three or four hours that first day. On the drive home, she says, she washed away old ghosts with a torrent of tears. “It struck me that one of the things that had bothered me was that I was not there when Lauren died. That somehow I had failed her. Because I had always been there, I felt that I had let her down. As I drove away from Murray’s house, I remember this incredible feeling [coming] over me that I had not let her down, that this was full circle and that I was glad everything worked out this way.”

She and Kessler maintained their contacts, and in September 1996, 6 1/2 years after the transplant, the Kesslers invited Bonas to their 50th anniversary party. The Kessler family sat Lynn and her son Christopher at “the table of honor” with them. Lynn gave Murray a baseball cap.

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Despite their bond, there was one thing Murray didn’t want Bonas to know: He had cancer. Last month, on Nov. 6, he died at 72.

“Murray loved Lynn and was so grateful she gave him the gift of life,” Addie Kessler, his wife, told me last week. “He didn’t want her to know he was dying of cancer. After the party, he didn’t get in touch with her. He felt he was failing her in some way. Here she gave him a heart. . . .”

Now that the circle is truly 100% complete, Bonas has had her moments of reflection. No great epiphanies, no life-altering thoughts. Rather, she says, just a reaffirmation of simple truths: that there is a purpose to things, that the family’s decision to donate Lauren’s organs had wonderful consequences, and that pain and sadness can be overcome.

Friends thought she’d be an emotional wreck at Kessler’s funeral, she says, partly from sorrow over his death but also because it would remind her of Lauren. It wasn’t that way at all, she says.

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“I didn’t think of Murray as having kept my daughter alive,” she says. “Everything I have for Lauren is in my heart. I looked around at the funeral and thought, ‘This could have happened seven years ago. Thank God that this man who everyone loved and admired so much could get an extra seven years.’ ”

Since the transplant, Kessler had donated many hours to cheering and counseling other transplant recipients and waiting-list patients. He spoke publicly whenever asked about the need for transplants. “I can’t imagine life without having known him,” Bonas says. “He was an everyday hero, a dynamic, caring, giving person--all the best things in a human being.”

At the funeral, Kessler’s family added a final, eternal touch. In his coffin, atop his folded hands, they placed the baseball cap Bonas gave him on the golden anniversary he never would have had without Lauren’s heart.

Considering the journey everyone had taken, the stitching embroidered on the cap seems to take on a deeper meaning: Have Heart, Will Travel.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821, by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail at dana.parsons@latimes.com.


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