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Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Local News

Heart transplant bonds families of young donor, recipient

TAMPA

On the four-year anniversary of the auto accident that took the life of her daughter Amanda, Laurie Pierce went to Lakeland to dance.

The grief was no less profound, but unlike in previous years, Pierce had a reason to get out of bed.

Garrett Leopold was nervous but happy to join her that March afternoon. Twirling through their choreographed lesson, the young man leaned closer so his dance partner could hear the beat of his heart.

Amanda's heart.

• • •

During spring break 2013, two months from Plant High graduation, Amanda was heading to Tallahassee to meet up with her older sister at Florida State to go apartment hunting. She was set to study at the community college with a plan to later transfer to FSU. Her best friend Taylor Lazzara was in the passenger seat March 8 as they drove west on Interstate 10.

Suddenly, the car in front of them stopped as it approached an accident. Amanda swerved right, braking hard and spinning into a tree on the shoulder of the highway. Lazzara suffered minor injuries. The Pierce family rushed to Tallahassee Memorial to say good-bye to 18-year-old Amanda.

That same weekend, at the University of Florida Shands Hospital, Leopold, then 16, experienced strange arrhythmias like never before. Hospital-bound for seven months waiting for a heart donor, his condition remained stable until that night, almost to the hour of the crash.

Born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, Leopold received his first heart transplant at 3 months old. He healed well and grew into a rambunctious toddler in Mulberry in Polk County, the second oldest of Susan and Erich Leopold's five children.

Two weeks into kindergarten, he was back at Shands, diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma. Doctors started chemotherapy immediately and successfully. Leopold took years of hospital homebound teleclasses, then finished eighth grade at Mulberry Middle School.

That summer, fatigue and lethargy sent him back to Shands, where he learned his heart was failing. His name went on the transplant waiting list and his activities were severely restricted.

Instead of sneaking out to cheer his beloved UF Gators, Leopold watched them on TV, praying almost as hard for a win as for a new heart.

"Waiting was extremely tough," he said. "Back home people were getting ready for high school and I wasn't allowed to go off the hospital property.

"Obviously, I knew when I prayed for a new heart, somebody had to go, and I prayed for the donor family as well. My faith was shaken but my family and doctors got me through it."

To this day, Leopold said, his cardiologist is his best friend.

Amanda grew up a devout Catholic, "with a special affinity for those with what I prefer to call special abilities," said her mother Laurie.

Spending time with developmentally delayed "Best Buddies," babysitting and YMCA child care jobs guided her towards an education career where she could share her gifts of compassion and kindness.

• • •

After Leopold received her heart, her sister Jessica made the first connection to the family even though organ donors and recipients follow privacy protocols. A search of news stories quickly led her to Garrett on Facebook and she sent a message, to which his oldest sibling, Molly Leopold, responded.

"I was readjusting to life again so I asked my sister to talk to her," he said.

In July he wrote to express his gratitude, followed by occasional contact.

The two families finally met on the first anniversary of the transplant.

Amanda's father, Ron Pierce of St. Petersburg, connected with Leopold through sports and music, and they have since attended games together — FSU, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Lightning.

"He took me to my first concert, Nickelback," Leopold said.

The first time Leopold met Laurie Pierce at her home on Davis Islands, he brought a stethoscope so she could listen to her daughter's heart.

"When she was done, she held my hand and said I was worthy to have this heart. I told her that I was honored and thankful to accept Amanda's heart."

Now 20, Leopold will graduate from Mulberry High School next month. He has a steady girlfriend and is considering going to Polk State College or a trade school. For sure, he'll get a driver's license.

But first, he's preparing to dance with Amanda's mom at the Tampa Bay Heart Ball on April 29.

He'll push through any of his nervousness so he can help the American Heart Association, the beneficiary of the gala, which last year funded more than $13.5 million in new research on children's heart disease. Some of it was focused on how congenital heart defects like Leopold's develop.

"Garrett is such a gentleman, and an excellent dancer," said Pierce, whose suggestion that they attend the gala reached Heart Ball co-chairmen Allen and Julie Brinkman. A video of Garrett and Amanda's story is expected to help the Brinkmans raise $2 million that night.

When the video ends, the spotlight will find the dancers' interpretation of Lee Ann Womack's powerful ballad, I Hope You Dance.

Pierce holds Amanda's picture.

Leopold holds her heart.

Contact Amy Scherzer at ascherzer@tampabay.com

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