As Bonnie Raitt tells it, the inspiration for her Grammy-winning Song of the Year, “Just Like That,” was a TV segment in which a mother listened to the beat of her dead son’s heart in a transplant recipient’s chest.
“I was so inspired for this song by the incredible story of the love and the grace and the generosity of someone that donates their loved one’s organs to help another person live,” Raitt said in her acceptance speech Sunday night. “And the story was so simple and beautiful for these times.”
I lay my head upon his chest
And I was with my boy again
Raitt has not said which transplant news story in 2018 led her to pen those lyrics, but there have been plenty since then. The grief and hope she wrote about has been on display in more than a dozen encounters chronicled by local TV stations.
Jody Pelt of Michigan lost her 19-year-old son, Bill Scruggs, when he was shot to death in 2019. Scruggs was the kind of teen who always gave whatever he had in his pocket when he encountered the homeless. He signed on as an organ donor the day he got his driver’s license in 2018. “He comes back from the counter and showed me the little sticker that says, ‘I’m an organ donor,’” Pelt told the Daily Beast on Monday. “He was very proud of himself.”
The teen’s heart went to a man named Bobby Davis at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute in North Carolina. Pelt and Davis initially communicated through an intermediary, then directly. Davis sent her a recording of her son’s continuing heartbeat made during a check-up.
“The recording is beautiful, but it reminded me of an ultrasound,” she remembered . “Hearing it in real life was even better.”
She was able to do that through a stethoscope when they finally met in person at the hospital in 2021.
“I made that,” she can be heard exclaiming in a video of the moment.
She recalled, “It was sort of bittersweet—very happy for the person who had it now, but also, you very much miss your person.”
She added, “Happy tears all around… I definitely was a happy mom.”Jenny Sullivan of Texas had a similar story. Her son, Amir Aguilar, was 26 when was fatally shot. His heart went to Manny Hardy of Oklahoma, whose own heart was failing when he received a transplant on Father’s Day of 2020.
Hardy returned home from the hospital to find a letter from Sullivan. She came to see him that October and a TV news crew was on hand when they met.
“She just walked over to me and she put her head on my chest while she was hugging me,” Hardy remembered. “She cried and cried and cried.”
Sullivan recalled, “When I hear my son’s heart beating in Manny’s chest, I close my eyes and I feel like I’m having my son,” she said. “It is so precious a feeling, the deep, deep, deep love that I had for my son.”
She said that when she gazed at Hardy’s face it was as if it became translucent. She says she also saw her son’s face.
“It is something only a mother could see,” she said.
She remembered something her son had said when he was a Navy corpsman: “If I save one life with my life, I’m going to be very happy.”
Sullivan and Hardy sat and talked for hours. Hardy’s wife presented Sullivan with a gift.
“My wife went to Build a Bear and had a recording of the heartbeat put in the bear and gave it to her,” Hardy said.
Similar encounters between mothers and heart transplant recipients can be found online by anybody in need of a little inspiration. But there would be many more if there were not a perpetual and critical shortage of donated hearts.
“There’s not nearly enough hearts available,” Dr. Eric Skipper, a cardiac transplant surgeon at the same North Carolina hospital where Pelt listened to her dead son’s living heart.
In national terms, Skipper said, there are under 5,000 transplants a year. The need is close to 35,000 to 40,000. Just getting on the heart transplant list is difficult and as of Sunday the federal transplant network had 3,343 would be recipients waiting.
“You can emphasize enough how vast the need is,” he said. “You’re truly giving them the gift of life.”
The recipient of Bill Scruggs’ gift of life has arranged with the hospital to install a bell along with his photo on the heart transplant floor. What is called “Bill’s Bell”' is rung after every successful heart transplant.
“I think the bell is an amazing tribute to Bill and I also believe that the patients who get to ring it get some kind of feeling as if they are victorious in the fight,” Pelt said.
Bill’s mother has not yet heard Bonnie Raitt’s song. But Pelt does have the recording of her son’s heartbeat.
“I still listen to it at least two or three times a month,” she said.