Heart transplant recipient celebrates graduation with donor’s mom

At 25, AJ Reyes was suffering from congestive heart failure and running out of time. Unless the Vallejo resident got another organ to replace his damaged one, his doctors told him he would be dead within five years.


Reyes went on the California Transplant Donor Network waiting list and in November of 2010, he got the call that he had been praying for. A strong, healthy heart had become available. But his joy was clouded by the knowledge that the news meant another family’s nightmare. Justin Olivera, a 40-year-old man from Willows, a small rural town in Northern California, had just been killed in a motorcycle accident. Olivera was an organ donor, and his heart gave Reyes a second chance.

On Friday, Reyes, now 32, graduated from Samuel Merritt University’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science Nursing program at the Paramount Theatre. The moment was all the more special because Olivera’s mother, Mary Knauer, whose son’s generous gift made Reyes’ dreams possible, made the 2½-hour drive with her daughter, Julie Olivera, to celebrate the occasion with Reyes’ mother, Tessa, and their extended family.

“I’ve always told her I intended to do amazing things with this second chance, so I’m very glad to be able to share this experience with her,” Reyes said.

It was a difficult and emotional day for Knauer, who said that Reyes has become like a nephew to her.

“I will always have a hole in my heart,” she said, “but to see my son’s heart walk down the graduation aisle, I’m just really happy for AJ and what’s…

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