After Rich Grehl’s successful heart transplant surgery Dec. 20, 2022, he hoped to one day learn the name of his donor and to meet his family.
That doesn’t occur often.
Nevertheless, his wish came true Thursday, Nov. 9, when Grehl, 63, of the Hewitt section of West Milford met the family of Billy Moon at the headquarters of LiveOnNY, an organ donation advocacy and planning group.
Moon, a New York City firefighter, died Dec. 20, 2022, at age 47 after a training accident a week earlier in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
In keeping with his career of saving lives, Moon had signed up to be an organ donor. He saved the lives of five people who were in desperate need of a heart, liver, lungs and kidneys; they included two fellow FDNY members as well as Grehl.
“I’ve been looking forward to this day for almost a year, wanting to express my condolences for this family’s loss and thank them for this beautiful gift of life,” Grehl said after the meeting. “Not a day went by when I didn’t think of the person and family, wondering who they were.”
LiveonNY representatives reached out to him a little more than a week before the meeting with the Moon family.
“The realization of learning whose heart was beating in my chest, giving me life, and meeting their family was surreal, sort of completing the circle of life,” he said.
During the highly emotional meeting, Kristina Moon listened to her husband’s heart, using a stethoscope against Grehl’s chest, for the first time since his death. So did his daughter, Brianne, 11, and son, Colin, 9, along with Moon’s parents.
“Knowing whose heart is giving me the gift of life and meeting his family was amazing, another dream come true,” Grehl said. “Billy’s family is fantastic, and they loved him and miss him greatly. He is a true hero in so many ways. I’m the vessel that, in a way, keeps Billy alive for his family.
“Kristina listened for the heartbeat in my chest first through the stethoscope. Life was there through her husband’s heart. The room was silent, you could hear a pin drop. Kristina said it was like listening to a baby’s heart for the first time.
“Their children then listened. Brianne was very happy and excited while Colin was more reserved and said listening to his father’s heart reminded him when during naps together, he could hear his dad’s heartbeat.
“At first, Billy’s mother, Patty, couldn’t hear the heartbeat through the stethoscope, but then she did! Her son’s heart, beating still. It was overwhelming. She spoke to her son, saying, ‘Billy, I can’t hear you. Is this payback from all times you wouldn’t listen to me when growing up?’ When she finally heard the heartbeat, she broke down in tears along with many of us.”
‘Joy and tears’
When meeting Kristina, Grehl hugged her and said, “Hello, I’m Rich, in more ways than one. Thank you so much.”
She said, “To hear that (Billy’s) heart is still beating is very emotional. Billy was a big personality and had a passion for life; especially when it came to what he believed in, including organ donation. I believe that passion came from his heart, and to hear it beat again brings both joy and tears.
”We are grateful and in awe of Rich’s health and decision to be a part of today,” she continued. “Billy was always our hero at home, and these moments continue to confirm that he is a hero to others as well. He is our forever hero.”
Along with the Moon family, joining in the gathering were Grehl’s 93-year-old father Frank, son Chris, sister Barbara of West Milford, girlfriend Linda Costa, and best friends Harry and Patty Lewis.
“I can understand what the Moon family went through, losing a loved one so suddenly and tragically,” Grehl said. “I think they know that their loved one’s heart was given to someone who will take care of it and appreciate life as much as Billy did. Without it, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Leonard Achan, president and chief executive of LiveOnNY, said, ”This remarkable story of heroism and hope serves as a poignant reminder of the profound legacy of organ donation left by firefighter Moon, who, even in his untimely passing, continues to make a difference and save lives.”
In June, the Fire Department of the City of New York presented the inaugural Billy Moon Medal of Life to Kristina Moon. Established by the FDNY, the medal honors individuals who exemplify Billy Moon’s benevolence and compassion for others.
“I feel completely blessed and grateful to have another extended family in my life,” Grehl said. “We’re planning to get together in weeks. This is going to be a long relationship that’s just now starting. The family has also started a foundation in Billy Moon’s memory, and that’s something I want to be a part of.
“This Thanksgiving came early for me. I’m blessed and forever grateful for everything, thankful having life. For Billy and me, I encourage everyone to be selfless about donating their valuable organs to save others upon death. It’s easy to sign up, and the process is done with complete respect.”
To hear that (Billy’s) heart is still beating is very emotional. Billy was a big personality and had a passion for life especially when it came to what he believed in, including organ donation. I believe that passion came from his heart, and to hear it beat again brings both joy and tears.”- Kristina Moon, widow of Billy Moon, New York City firefighter and organ donor