Finding Closure in the Gross Lab

Colleen Steele avatar

by Colleen Steele |

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gross lab

Happy Halloween! This week, I’m taking you on a journey to a “gross lab.” Yes, that is what it’s called.

Four weeks after our son Cullen’s heart and double-lung transplant, we paid our respects to his old organs. Some might consider that morbid, but to us, it was necessary. It was important for us to say farewell to the wounded warriors that fought so long and hard to keep my son alive. We were grateful that his lungs, ravaged by pulmonary hypertension (PH), and his heart, heavy and severely enlarged, were able to sustain him until his transplant.

At 10 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, our family put latex gloves on and proceeded to the gross lab door. Cullen was eager to see and hold his heart and lungs. Not many can say they had the opportunity to do that! Cullen’s brother was nervous but curious, while his dad and I were a combination of emotion and reverence. We wanted to be there, but it was surreal when we approached the metal cart that held his organs.

Once we were ready, a lab technician slowly removed a cloth covering and revealed my son’s heart and lungs. We could see how sick his heart was. A healthy heart should be the size of your fist, but Cullen’s heart was heavy. It was smaller than it was when it was inside him, but it still took two hands to hold. His heart was barely functioning by the time he underwent transplant.

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Colleen with Cullen’s old heart. (Courtesy of Colleen Steele)

I grieved my son’s brave heart that had suffered so much. When I picked up his lungs, I thought, “So, you’re PH. We finally meet face to face.”

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Cullen and his dad with Cullen’s old lungs. (Courtesy of Colleen Steele)

When I listen to the song “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by the Hollies, I think of my son’s organs and how they carried him through his war with PH. “But I’m strong,” the lyrics read. “Strong enough to carry him. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

Cullen supports transplant facilities that allow patients to see their old organs. This unique opportunity gave Cullen closure to a difficult time in his life. He wasn’t scared or angry but grateful for the old friends that had seen him through tough times.

Seeing Cullen’s expired organs intensified our deep love and gratitude for his donor. The gift of life beating and breathing inside him is so amazing! Cullen isn’t the only miracle in this story. So is his donor. In the Christian faith, All Souls’ Day is this Saturday, Nov. 2. All Souls’ Day is an opportunity to remember those who have died, and my son’s donor will be in our prayers.

This weekend marks the beginning of PH Awareness Month. In the U.S., November is also a time of thanksgiving. I will continue to advocate for my son’s old heart and lungs by spreading PH awareness. Like a loved one who has died, his organs and his donor will not be forgotten. I am thankful that my son was given a second chance at life and will soon celebrate his twentieth birthday.

Thank you to those who are organ donors! If you aren’t an organ donor and live in the U.S., click here to find out more. People outside the U.S. can click here, and people in Canada can click here.


Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


Bert Honeywell avatar

Bert Honeywell

Thank you again Steele family for sharing your life story. Your strength is in the name!

Colleen Steele avatar

Colleen Steele

Thank you, Bert! Friends and family help keep us strong!


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