NEW ROADS -- Thanksgiving tradition brought together many families, but it introduced New Roads resident Kim Neal to someone she now considers “her new son.”
She opened her door to Katrina Cartwright and her husband, Edward, the man who received a lifesaving gift from Neal.
Edward Cartwright received a heart transplant in January 2019 after Neal opted to donate the organs of her slain son David.
The Cartwrights drove from their hometown of Nashville to meet Neal for the first time and to give thanks in a way they never had done before.
The visit gave the Cartwrights a chance to thank Neal for what was a life-saving gesture. It also provided a sense of closure for Neal.
The organ donation came less than five days after the shooting death of Kim’s only son David, who worked for the New Roads Fire Department.
The gesture seemed like a fitting tribute for a son who made his living through saving lives.
“David had always been a loving and giving child, and had always done nice things for everyone,” Kim Neal said.
David, father of one daughter, was shot Jan. 19, 2019, three months shy of his 32nd birthday.
He underwent surgery one day later to relieve the pressure on his brain.
A respiratory test two days later revealed he had no ability to breathe on his own.
Representatives of the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA) approached Kim Neal, asking her to consider donating her son’s organs. She opted to donate his kidneys, liver and heart.
She took up LOPA on its offer to let her know the recipients.
“I wrote letters through LOPA and sent letters and pictures, and if the letters were OK, they’d send the copy to the recipients, and then the recipients would send the letters and any type of correspondence,” Kim said.
The first person from whom she received contact was a man named David in Metairie, who received her son’s kidney.
The next was a lady from Shreveport, who received the liver, then a lady named Susan Neal who received the other kidney.
“Having the last name Neal, I knew God had a way of keeping my child with me,” Kim said.
The best news came last.
A letter she received from LOPA notified Neal about Edward Cartwright, who received her son’s heart.
“We had been communicating every day, and I could not ask for a better son or a better group of families to share a part of my life and my child’s life,” she said.
The donation could not have come sooner for Cartwright, who was living on borrowed time.
“As a teenager, Edward had high blood pressure, and as he reached his early 20s, the heart problems developed and he damaged heart muscles, which required stints for his heart, and that was later followed with a defibrillator in his heart,” Katrina Cartwright said.
“By the time he reached 32, the percentage of his heart rate began dissipating.”
By the end of that year, is heart rate dropped to 12 percent.
The days prior to the transplant felt more like the final moments of life, Edward Cartwright said.
His feet constantly swelled, and his condition left him bedridden.
“There was no walking, no getting up, no breathing … nothing,” Edward said. “I felt like a very old man, and I didn’t want to do anything other than stay inside.”
Doctors could not explain the reason for the weak heart, particularly because he had no history of drinking, smoking or poor eating habits.
Katrina Cartwright said she sought to keep her husband comfortable, both physically and emotionally.
“My thing was that we didn’t need to keep Edward in fear that he was in his last days, so that’s why we were always trying to keep him happy,” she said.
He was on a donor’s list, but his hopes for survival rapidly diminished.
‘He was in such bad shape we had hospice coming to the house to bring him fluid until we could make it back to the hospital,” Katrina said.
“His appointment was the first week of January and he was told he wasn’t going to be able to leave the St. Thomas West Hospital in Nashville until he received a heart transplant.
“They told us he would not make it to see his 42nd birthday, which was last year, if he had not gotten a heart,” she said.
“I COULD BREATHE AGAIN”
The transplant announcement put the wheels in motion for Cartwright’s new lease on life.
The operation lasted nearly 24 hours. It began when a plane took Neal’s heart from Baton Rouge to Nashville.
“Nurses gave me updates every hour,” Katrina Cartwright said. “I was a total wreck in the waiting area.”
Even with the power of prayer, the thought of her husband receiving a new heart seemed inconceivable.
It also brought a sense of amazement to Edward Cartwright once he awakened from surgery.
“The biggest difference was that I could breathe again,” he said.
The effects from the surgery did not take long to notice, Katrina said.
“It was wonderful just to be able to see him able to walk without holding up on a wall, and for him to be able do to something on his own without me being there to holding him up,” she said.
“It was a thrill just seeing him being able to get out of bed or sit in a hospital chair, without someone having to help him do every little thing because he couldn’t do it himself.
“When he got into physical therapy, he was out walking and doing things that people in months could not do,” Katrina said.
“They said he was the fastest recovery at his age because it was so unusual for a 41-year-old to get a new heart.”
For Cartwright, it meant a return to regular life – even a return to work.
“With this, I’m grateful to be able to live longer and do the things I’ve been wanting to do,” he said.
He had retired from his 13-year job as a line supervisor with Nashville Electrical Services.
Now, he stays busy with a part-time job at a Kroger Supermarket.
“His routine each day involves getting up, singing a song to me and calling or texting Kim,” Katrina Neal said.
“He’s the light of day, and his coworkers are disappointed when they don’t see him at work,” she said. “Edward is always happy and always giving, and that’s a blessing.”
He also will be able to witness something that two years ago he did not think he would live to see.
“Now I’ll get to see my daughters graduate from high school next year,” Cartwright said.
HONORING A LEGACY
Kim Neal said she sees something else when she sees Cartwright.
“Seeing him here with us at Thanksgiving as healthy and well as he is allows me to see God’s grace,” she said.
“When David was in the hospital, I’d talk to him, pray and hold his hands.
“I told David if he would fight, I would fight with him, and if he didn’t want to fight, I would be OK,” Neal said. “And, if he didn’t want to fight, I would be OK.”
Organ donations served as the best way to honor David’s legacy, she said.
“I knew he would be OK about Edward because he was a loving and giving person,” Kim said.
“So, to me it would’ve been selfish not to do that, and because of his selfless act of being a donor, he has helped four lives.”
She also knows what her son would say about the donation.
“He’s glad that I have Edward,” Kim Neal said. “I couldn’t have picked anyone for this because otherwise, I would’ve failed, but getting to know Edward as I do, he’s as funny as David is, caring as David … his name is not David, but his heart and soul are David.
“Between his old body and new heart, I feel God put Edward in my life for this reason,” she said.
“When all of this happened, I prayed, because I’m a praying person, and when David died, I prayed and asked God not to let me be bitter and that God’s will would be done and that I would be able to understand that --- and that’s my constant prayer all the time.”
The donation also avoided the bitterness that often follows the slaying of a loved one.
Through David, Kim Neal said she has fulfilled her son’s wishes.
“I wasn’t bitter and I’m still not bitter. David is gone, but with all the stories recipients have shared with me … I know this was God’s doing and David’s choice to allow him to do what he needed to do,” she said.
“Seeing Edward healthy keeps me in the right perspective that tells me I made the right decision.
“This is a new lease on life for Katrina and Edward, who has basically become my son,” Neal said. “It’s not only that way for them and their children, but for everyone else around them.”