Heart transplant recipient runs turkey trot, meets donor’s family

AURORA, Ohio - A lot of heart goes into the annual Aurora Turkey Trot, but none like the one beating inside Gene Shimandle's chest.

“There was certainly a time where I believed I wasn't ever going to get that heart,” Shimandle said.

Thanksgiving morning, he ran the 5K just six months after receiving a lifesaving heart transplant. He waited for 12 years since being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and experiencing congestive heart failure.

“That was basically a death sentence. And I am very blessed man to be able to be here today,” he said.

After years of complications and two artificial hearts, Shimandle finally received word in early May that a heart was available.

He did not know who the donor was until Wednesday when FOX 8 News aired a story about Shimandle’s plans to run the race.

Cody Stebel, 20, died following an April car crash in Erie County. His family saw Shimandle’s story and immediately recognized the details from a letter they received in October from his recipient, signed Gene and asking to one day meet.

“As soon as we seen it on the news, the name Gene, May 8th, the Turkey Trot, it's like we knew immediately,” said Cody’s father, Dave Stebel.

The family reached out to Shimandle and arranged to drive from Norwalk Thursday to meet the man who found new life in their son’s death.

Shimandle thanked Cody’s relatives, who were brought to tears while using a stethoscope to listen to Cody’s heart beating in Shimandle’s chest.

“Like having him back for just a brief moment,” Stebel said.

On their first Thanksgiving holiday without Cody, his family cheered on Shimandle as he completed the Turkey Trot race, flanked by nurses who helped him recover.

“I’m thinking my family just got a little bit bigger,” Stebel said. “He'll never be here, but pieces of him will always be.”

Both families said they have something to be thankful for this holiday.

“It’ll be a Thanksgiving I never forget,” Stebel said. “Just a horrible, tragic accident, but at least something good came out of it, and that's what I try to think about every day.”