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A young man’s heart binds the lives of a grieving NC mother and an ailing stranger

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Wake Forest basketball assistant coach Jamill Jones has been arrested and charged with third-degree assault for the delivering a lethal punch to a New York City tourist.
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Wake Forest basketball assistant coach Jamill Jones has been arrested and charged with third-degree assault for the delivering a lethal punch to a New York City tourist.

Donna Kent wanted to know who received her son’s heart. Sean Moynihan wanted to know where his new heart came from.

In the days after the death of her son, knowing that he was an organ donor brought Kent some measure of peace. It helped her grieving, knowing that parts of him lived on in other people, that his final gift provided life to others.

Her son, Sandor Szabo, was 35. He graduated from Millbrook High in Raleigh, where Kent still lives, and he lived in Boca Raton, Fla. He traveled to New York City in early August for his stepsister’s wedding and never came home.

He died last Aug. 7, days after losing consciousness after being punched in the face during a late-night altercation in Long Island City. Police have charged Jamill Jones, an assistant basketball coach at Wake Forest, with misdemeanor assault in Szabo’s death.

Kent didn’t know much about the recipients of her son’s organs, due to laws that keep that information private, but she knew basic details.

She knew that a 41-year-old woman from New York received Szabo’s right kidney and liver. She knew that a 44-year-old man from New York received his left kidney and pancreas. She knew that the lungs went to a 73-year-old man from Massachusetts. And she knew that a 58-year-old man received her son’s heart.

After a nine-hour surgery last August, Sean Moynihan woke up to a familiar sensation that had grown unfamiliar: a heartbeat. He hadn’t had one since they’d implanted a device to help the blood flow — nine months without a real pulse. He was 58, and a retired paramedic from Toms River, N.J., where he lived with his wife of 31 years.

After the surgery he said he felt “completely different.” His wife walked in, and the first thing she noticed was that he had some color: “He wasn’t that pale, grayish look that he had for a long time,” she said.

He told her that he could feel his heartbeat. And also that he could hear it — the sound it made.

“It was really, really, really strong,” she said. “Like, really strong.”

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Sean Moynihan in a hospital room in an undated photo. Moynihan, who has been in and out of the hospital over the past 10 years, recently received a heart transplant from Sandor Szabo, who died in August after being punched in the face outside of New York City. Wake Forest assistant basketball coach Jamill Jones has been charged with misdemeanor assault in connection with Szabo’s death. Courtesy of Jill Moynihan

Moynihan wanted to know about his new heart. He wanted to know where it came from but, he said, the hospital “would not tell me a thing,” which is the law. During his 16-day recovery in hospital, he met one of the doctors who was on the organ procurement team. Sean knew the doctor couldn’t tell him much. But he asked him how the heart looked, before the surgery.

“And he said, it was as pretty as a heart could look,” Sean said during a recent phone interview, his voice cracking.

After her son’s death, Kent wrote letters to each of the people who received his organs. She included details about Szabo’s life, about who he was and what he did. She wrote that he loved the water. She sent the letters through the transplant organization, Live On New York, and they passed them onto the recipients, if they were open to receiving them.

Kent hoped to hear back from at least one. She didn’t know whether she would.

Live On New York asked Moynihan if he wanted to read Kent’s letter. He did. Ever since the surgery, he’d wanted to know where his heart came from. Somehow, he wanted to give thanks. When he received the letter, he said he “read it like four or five times.” He gave it to his wife, and she read it. He gave it to one his daughters, and she read it, and then he read it over the phone to his other daughter.

“It was tough, putting names (with it),” Sean said. “Because I knew somebody else’s family had to deal with something tragic.”

Moynihan wrote back to Kent: “Dear Donna,” it began, “My name is Sean …

“… My wife, two daughters and I are heartbroken for your loss of Sandor. From your description of him I think he and I could have been friends. I too love the water, fish often, and when at the beach I prefer being in the water. I am the recipient of Sandor’s heart. I knew it had to come from a good person because when I awoke that morning after the surgery I felt better than I had in years. When it’s quiet I can hear it beating strong and steady. We can’t thank you, your family, and Sandor enough. There just aren’t words. To us this gift I have received is no less than a miracle …”

He wrote that his recovery was going well. No setbacks. They traded emails. They set up a time to talk.

Hoping for miracles

Both Kent and Moynihan had stories to tell. For Kent, a lot of them involved anguish. For Moynihan, a lot of them involved gratitude. Soon, they traded emotions. Kent felt gratitude for coming to know Moynihan’s story, and Moynihan felt anguish for Kent’s.

That their lives intersected at all was the result of chance.

Early last August, Szabo made something of a last-minute decision to attend the wedding in New York.

Around the same time, Moynihan tried to prepare himself for a long wait to receive a heart. He’d been on a transplant list since February 2018. Doctors told him he might wait for two years.

No one can be sure what happened to Szabo after the wedding in the early-morning hours of Aug. 4. He’d been drinking, his mother said. She said he’d called for a Lyft. Several blocks from where he’d been, Szabo found himself in a confrontation with another man. That confrontation led to a punch, and it led to Szabo falling backward, his head striking the concrete. At the hospital, doctors connected him to a web of tubes, wires and machines to keep him alive.

Kent arrived as quickly as she could. Szabo was the oldest of her two sons. She made the drive with her husband — Szabo’s stepfather — and it wasn’t long before the hospital room filled with friends and family, people hoping that their prayers and well-wishes might somehow help Szabo wake up. He looked peaceful, Kent said, even if he couldn’t breathe on his own.

“We had country western music playing for him,” she said. “And you just hope that there’s going to be a miracle.”

Somewhere around Toms River, Moynihan and his family hoped for a miracle of their own.

The past decade had been difficult, what with Moynihan’s heart growing weaker and weaker. For the previous 10 years or so, he’d had a defibrillator implanted in his chest. During a camping trip in 2017, the defibrillator went off.

In the span of a year, it went off about 20 times. When it did, it always felt like an electric shock. The previous two years had been especially excruciating, with the regular shocks — sudden electric jolts — that pulsed through Moynihan’s chest whenever his defibrillator stopped working.

In late 2017, doctors inserted what’s known as an LVAD — a left ventricle assist device — in Moynihan’s heart. It’s a pump that makes the blood flow. He carried around a battery pack that powered the device. His defibrillator kept shocking him. He couldn’t walk more than 100 feet without losing his breath. Stairs presented an almost insurmountable challenge. Slowly, his heart was failing.

“I was just existing,” Moynihan said. “I really wasn’t living, you know?”

‘Someone else had to die’

Szabo always liked doing things for other people, his mom said. He worked in digital marketing, and among his colleagues he earned a reputation for his generosity and the unique gifts he’d give around the holidays. He shared an apartment with his brother and out of the blue Szabo built a system, complete with a camera, to help his brother monitor his pepper garden when he traveled. For someone with a reputation for giving, perhaps it wasn’t surprising, then, that Szabo chose to be an organ donor.

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Sandor Szabo Courtesy of the family

For a long while, the idea of a heart transplant haunted Moynihan. Not because of the prospect of the surgery, or the recovery, or the potential risk involved. But because of what it all meant: He understood his gain would represent another’s loss. He knew that the extension of his life depended on the end of somebody else’s. He didn’t know if he could handle it, the emotional burden of such a trade.

“I knew that somebody else had to die, for me to get a heart,” he said. “And I did flirt with the idea of not accepting it, because I just … I went back and forth a lot of times.”

For days, Kent and her family remained by Szabo’s side as much as they could. She rubbed his feet once, and they felt cold. Months later that still stuck out to her. The family’s hope, however strong, faded. Doctors pronounced him dead on Aug. 7, three days after he’d lost consciousness after the punch.

After his death, doctors kept Szabo’s organs alive, so that they could be harvested: his pancreas, his liver, both of his kidneys, his lungs, his heart. The surgeons, Kent said, “were almost giddy to have such a perfect body.” Szabo kept himself in shape. He liked diving. He could hold his breath for a long time.

“They said his organs were so just amazingly healthy,” Kent said.

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Sean Moynihan (right) and his wife, Jill, pose for an undated photo. Sean received a heart transplant from Sandor Szabo, who died last August after being punched in the face outside of New York City. Prosecutors have charged Wake Forest assistant basketball coach Jamill Jones with third degree assault in connection with Szabo’s death. Courtesy Jill Moynihan

Not long after Szabo died, Moynihan and his wife, Jill, arrived for a class. It was a class for prospective organ transplant recipients: what kinds of food to eat, how to take care of yourself, how to live after the transplant. Moynihan’s phone began to buzz. A New York number. His wife answered it outside in the hallway. It was a doctor. They’d just been to see the same doctor the day before.

Now the doctor told Jill to go back for Sean. She did and they both stood in the hallway.

“And he told us both at the same time that he found a heart,” Sean said.

After receiving the phone call from the doctor, Jill Moynihan said that her husband’s first thought was this: “We need to pray for the donor family.” And so they did, Jill said. Then they rushed to the hospital.

Doctors and nurses prepared Sean for his surgery. They put him under anesthesia. He closed his eyes, unsure what would happen next.

Back home in Raleigh, Kent had difficulty sleeping. She had nightmares, visions of her son being punched. She didn’t leave the house often. The times she did, people would offer their condolences, and in those moments she felt her loss all over again, as if she was reliving it on a loop.

Back in the hospital, Jill waited while doctors placed a new heart inside of her husband’s chest. There wasn’t much to do other than wait. She recently thought about what that wait was like but before she could say, Sean answered for her: “Miserable.” She said “it was kind of scary” but, by then, there had been a lot of scary moments: the shocks, the constant fatigue, the news that Sean needed a transplant.

Remembrance

It was months after the transplant when Moynihan received Kent’s letter, and he wrote one of his own. When they finally talked, the conversation lasted 40 minutes. There were tears on both sides of the call.

Six months after her son’s death, Kent’s grieving goes on. She’s still trying to understand the misdemeanor charge against Jones, and she has urged prosecutors in Queens, N.Y., to charge him with a more serious crime. Moynihan’s story, Kent said recently, has been “our one shining light … the thing that makes Sandor’s death make sense.”

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Donna Kent with her son Sandor Szabo. Courtesy of Donna Kent

Six months after receiving a new heart, Moynihan’s recovery goes on. He said recently that he “can walk almost as far as I want now.” He can go up stairs. He can exercise. He can work around the house. He has had to make changes: everything he eats has to be completely cooked and cleaned. No raw vegetables. No tap water. He plans to live into his 70s, at least.

Jill has known Sean since she was 17. In many ways, the transplant allowed him to turn back the clock.

“I actually have a bounce in my step now that I haven’t had in I don’t know how long,” he said.

Earlier this week, he and Jill were in the car, somewhere in South Carolina, headed south. They were on their way to Florida. Kent has organized a weekend remembrance there for Szabo with all of his friends and family. She’s had his ashes placed into “a big reef ball,” as she described it, that will be placed into the ocean this weekend.

Kent invited the Moynihans to be there, and so they’re coming. So are their daughters.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop crying,” Jill said. “Sean and I, every time we talk about it or think about it … it’s so extremely emotional.”

She spoke of their journeys, each one with its own share of challenges: Sean’s toward recovery, and Szabo’s loved ones toward peace — two divergent paths connected by the same heartbeat.

Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.


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