Teen's death gives transplant miracle to Florida family

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Her family said Amanda Pierce's heart shined through from the very beginning.

"She was a blast -- a blast!," her mother, Laurie, remembered. "We called her Amanda Panda Bear."

Garrett Leopold was not so lucky. He was born with a bad heart.

Growing up 40 miles apart, they never knew one another, or that Amanda's heart would save Garrett's life.

"What she left was a gift," Garrett's mom, Susan, said.

Garrett received Amanda's heart in a transplant. His life was saved when hers ended in a car crash.

Amanda's mother said she misses her every day. Then, she thinks of Garrett.

"There's no doubt in my mind that God intervened," Amanda's mother explained. "This is tragic and awful, but it can at least bring something miraculous from the tragedy."


Garrett was 16 years old at Shands Hospital in Gainesville in December of 2013. He had been there for six months, waiting for a transplant.

His condition was in decline.

"That Friday evening, his heart started to go into irregular rhythm," Susan remembered. "It got to the point where we were called at the Ronald McDonald House and they told me we had to get to the hospital."

At the same time, 18-year-old Amanda was driving to school at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Her dream was to become a special education teacher.

Suddenly, there was an accident ahead. She swerved to avoid it, hit a tree, and died. Amanda's family and her friends at Plant High School in Tampa were devastated.

At a candlelight vigil outside the school, a classmate said, "everyone just loved her. She was just an incredible person."

They said she had a heart of gold. As an organ donor, her final gift was just in time for Garrett.


"It was almost like a split-screen TV," Garrett's mom said. "If you could see Amanda's story that weekend and what was going on with Garrett. He was failing."

Garrett recalls the moment he found out about Amanda.

"I got the news at 3:23 in the morning. I noticed all my nurses looking at each other saying, 'Does he know?'" Garrett recalled.

Susan took a picture of a text from the doctor.

"The heart is here," it said. "The transplant has started."

Many still see transplants as a medical miracle, but for Garrett, there has been both joy and guilt.

"Of course you feel excited," Garrett, whose life was saved, explained. "But at the same time, there's a price for that. A very big price for that."

Heart transplants are typically anonymous. Recipients do not know who gave the heart that saved their lives.

However, both Garrett and Amanda grew up in the Tampa Bay area. The families saw news reports of both the transplant in Gainesville and the fatal crash near Tallahassee. Amanda's dad Ron says it didn't take him long to realize the connection.

"The time frame, when they said it was a perfect match. I just knew it was her. I just knew," Ron explained.


It was Amanda's sister, Jessica, who first contacted Garrett on social media. Both families decided to meet and talk about the heart they now share.

Amanda's dad said he keeps his connection to his daughter through Garrett. They've gone to sporting events, concerts, and a helicopter ride.

They also visited FSU, where Amanda was headed on the night of the crash.

"It was a hard time when I brought Garrett up to the Florida State game," Ron said. "I had to drive by the accident scene. I don't like that drive."

The two families have shared emotional times, reflecting on what happened.

"How do you begin to tell another mom, 'Thank you?'" Garrett's mom asked, choking back tears. "How do you get the words out?"

Unable to wrap their minds around it, they wrap their hearts around it.

"We met that first day and this beautiful young man brought a stethoscope so that I could listen to his heart," Amanda's mom said.

Garrett's mom took a picture showing Laurie, with her eyes closed, listening to Amanda's heart through Garrett.

"You could just feel the love. The love of her child," Susan said. "I could not have picked a better recipient than you."

Amanda's mom's words to Garrett were simple yet profound.

"I love you," she said.