Rare transplant links new residents with S.C. family

Special to The StateNovember 3, 2013 

Josh Kriebel keeps a photo of Helen Corontzes in his bedroom, a reminder of the young woman whose donor heart beats in his chest.

BRIDGET B. WINSTON — Special to The State

  • Want to help

    Go to curedmd.com to learn more about Josh and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

    Go to helenshugs.org to learn more about Helen and therapeutic equestrian programs.

In 2006, Josh Kriebel was on death’s doorstep. The 14-year-old had Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), and his heart was failing.

DMD is a progressive muscle-wasting genetic disorder, and the life expectancy for those with the disorder is 20 years, as the muscles of the heart and lungs degenerate.

At that time, Josh’s mother, Tammy, was sleeping on the floor of his bedroom in their Pennsylvania home, listening to his labored breathing as he tried to sleep and waiting for alarms to sound on his medical devices.

Duchenne patients are not typically candidates for organ transplants because of the nature of the disorder, but Josh was not a typical Duchenne patient.

“I understand there aren’t enough hearts to go around, but not everyone fits the mold” said Josh, now 22. “It was just tough because no one took the time to ask ‘Is this possible?’”

Josh and his parents believed it was possible. They crusaded to be put on the heart transplant list, even while doctors were telling them their energy would be better spent making end-of-life decisions.

As his health continued to decline, Josh was admitted to a Pittsburgh hospital in early February of 2006. Finally, they met a doctor “who got the full gist of who this person is and what he is capable of,” said Tammy. Later that month, Josh was on the transplant list.

Meanwhile, Helen Corontzes, a Clemson native, was studying to be a nurse at Greenville Technical College. The 19-year-old was part of a close-knit family that included a younger sister, Christine, a younger brother, Matt, and her parents, Lesa and George.

The Corontzes family traveled to Conway in March of 2006 for a relative’s wedding. On the way back from the rehearsal dinner, the driver of another vehicle fell asleep and crashed into the Corontzes’ car on the side where Helen was sitting.

After the crash, Helen was on life support for a week and her sister was in a coma for two days. Christine eventually recovered, but Helen died on March 23.

“I thought I was losing them both,” Lesa Corontzes said. “But I firmly believe that Helen said to Christine, ‘I’m already in heaven. You go back and be with mom and dad.’”

Corontzes felt blessed to be with her daughter in her final minutes. “My son said to me, ‘How many people can say they held their child when she was born and held her when she died?’”

The next day, back in Pittsburgh, Josh’s breakfast had just been delivered to his hospital room. Before he could take his first bite, nurses rushed in to tell him not to eat. A heart had been found for him.

“I went blank,” Josh recalls. “There was so much I wanted to process. I couldn’t believe this was finally happening.”

After living with a heart rate so rapid it made his head shake, Josh said he woke up from surgery and immediately felt calm and relaxed. His heart rate and body temperature were back in normal ranges. As he recovered in the coming months, his body showed no signs of rejection.

Before long the Kriebel family received a letter from the Corontzes family. Several of Helen’s organs had been donated, and the family hoped to connect with the recipients. For privacy purposes, some of the information in the letter had been blacked out, but one of Tammy’s relatives was able to research details of the crash and find the Corontzes family.

Last year, Christine Corontzes received a text from Josh telling her that the family had moved to Camden in search of a better climate.

“I could not believe it,” Corontzes said. “I called mama and said, ‘Helen’s heart is back in South Carolina.’ I still cannot believe that her heart beats in South Carolina.”

On Josh’s birthday in May, the two families finally met. The Corontzes family traveled to Camden to have dinner with Josh’s family, which includes five siblings. Both families say that their connection, despite being tragic, was meant to be. And both families have used their experiences to reach out to others.

Josh has started a nonprofit organization called The Joshua Michael Foundation to advocate for Duchenne patients. He sells green-ribbon bracelets and earrings, as well as T-shirts on his website, cureDMD.com.

The Corontzes family honors Helen’s memory through Helen’s Hugs, an organization that provides scholarships for equine therapy for special needs children and adults. Another of Helen’s organ recipients has attended the annual fundraiser for Helen’s Hugs the past three years.

“It’s crazy how we all see and feel so much of Helen’s kind and beautiful ways in both Josh and (the other recipient),” Lesa Corontzes said. “Knowing them brings so much comfort to George, Matt, Christine and I.”

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