Jon Hochstein, a Harvard Medical School graduate, received a heart transplant when he was 4 years old and hopes to help children who also need organ transplants. (Hochstein family photo)
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SALT LAKE CITY – Four-year-old Jon Hochstein waited patiently at Primary Children’s Hospital for a heart transplant. He didn’t know until more than 20 years later that it came from a boy who died in the same hospital, in the same intensive care unit where he was staying.
Now at the age of 27, Hochstein is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and preparing for his stay at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“I wanted to be a doctor from the moment I had my heart transplant,” said the recent graduate.
At the end of his freshman year of medicine, Hochstein said, a reporter helped him locate the donor family. Hochstein had previously tried to find them, figuring that his heart might have come from a boy he’d read about and who died around the same time he received the heart.
Christopher Brazell had been hit by a car when he was 8 years old while walking on a crosswalk at a school in Wendover.
His sister, April Hough, of upstate New York, said her mother was initially against donating Christopher’s organs after he was brain-dead in the accident. While wandering the hallways of Primary Children’s, her mother saw a boy who looked very ill and asked the nurses what was going on. Hough said she was told the boy was waiting for a heart transplant.
Although the grim reality of the little boy’s need for a heart led her mother to decide to donate her son’s organs, the family did not learn at the time that Christopher’s heart went to the boy his mother had seen and to whom. his mother had asked.
The chance to meet Hochstein and hear her brother’s heart again was “like running home from the playground.”
“Organ donation for the donor’s family is healing,” she said. “As crazy as that may sound, it really gives a sense of peace.”
The two sides met about 21 years after Christopher died — after Hough said she’d given up on the idea of ever meeting the recipient. She said meeting Hochstein and seeing what he did with his life caused a positive change in her life — knowing that Hochstein’s gratitude for her brother makes their family feel that Christopher didn’t die in vain.
“I don’t think I’ve met such a humble person in all my life. He just radiates humility and gratitude,” Hough said.
Katy Welkie, CEO of Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital and vice president of Intermountain Children’s Health, said two families were in the pediatric ICU at the same time more than 20 years ago and were able to help each other.
“These are the kinds of unforgettable moments in our hospital that we cherish as caregivers,” Welkeie said.
She was the nursing director of the ICU at the time and said they are always touched by families who decide to give the “gift of life” through organ donation.
Rose Linsler, the nurse who was supposed to care for young Hochstein when he was so ill, is now an Intermountain Life Flight Nurse. She said the entire pediatric IC staff knew and loved Hochstein, and hoped he would eventually get a new heart.
Hochstein said he has few memories of that time and many come from stories told to him, but one proposes Linsler to a plastic ring. He also remembers hanging out with the phlebotomists and shooting them with a dart gun, and riding his bike down the hospital corridor.
Linsler said that the day they lost Christopher, Hochstein had gotten sicker and it was unknown if he would survive the night. She said there were many coincidences that day, including that Christopher’s heart was a perfect fit for their then 4-year-old patient.
“I keep sharing this story with people all the time, and never without goosebumps and the occasional few tears, because it gives hope and reminds us of the positive results of organ donation,” Linsler said.
She thanked Hochstein’s mother for allowing her to be part of the family through her difficult time. She said she keeps in touch with Hochstein and still jokes that he’s her fiancé.
David and Barb Hochstein, Jon Hochstein’s parents, expressed their gratitude for Christopher’s family and said they think about his family every day. They said they were praying that if something unfortunate happened to someone, the family would make the decision to donate organs that would help their son stay alive. David Hochstein said too often that organs that can be donated are not.
“Not many days go by that we don’t think about that tragedy,” he said. “And even after we got Jon back home, it was a melancholy time at times because, as the holidays were over, we thought about how the donor family had an empty seat at their table. And that’s a sobering thought.”
He said the tragedy in Christopher Brazell’s family gave their son an incredible second chance at life — one that Jon Hochstein hasn’t taken for granted.
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