ST. LOUIS — It was a chance encounter that had everyone in tears.
Siblings of Donovan Bulger attended a St. Louis Cardinals game on Sunday at Busch Stadium to commemorate their brother’s life at the MLB team’s Transplant Awareness Day.
Bulger died in 2016 following a tragic accident. Before he died, one of the 21-year-old’s wishes was to be an organ donor. The Belleville, Illinois resident’s organs helped save the lives of several people, his siblings said.
Little did they and their spouses know that they’d run into one of them at a baseball game.
“We try to attend events to help spread awareness,” said Bulger’s sister, Savannah Roesch, who attended with her husband, Jake. “We were all standing there representing our brother when we heard someone ask ‘Are you Donovan’s family?'”
What happened next led to a “hug fest and cry fest,” Roesch said. The recipient of Bulger’s heart was at the same game with his family.
John Sueme, along with his wife, Liza, daughter, Catherine, and two other friends attended the game because Transplant Awareness Day also impacted their family in a special way. After being in heart failure for five years, Sueme received a new heart in 2016. The heart that he would later find out was Bulger’s.
Transplant Awareness Day at the MLB game was presented by Washington University, Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center and the St. Louis Children’s Hospital as a way to honor and celebrate the lives of families of organ donors and recipients.
Thousands of people attended the baseball game, yet these two families stumbled across each other. After the transplant, Sueme wrote a letter to Bulger’s family thanking them for the gift of life.
“I followed guidelines, I can’t name myself, it was a general letter thanking them for this tremendous gift,” Sueme, 65 of St. Louis, told CNN. “Several months later I received a letter from Savannah and enclosed were two pictures of Donovan.”
One of those pictures was printed on the lime green shirts that Bulger’s family wore to the game Sunday with the quote “brother, organ donor and hero.” Sueme’s daughter spotted the group next to a photo booth area and instantly recognized it.
“It was like lightning struck yesterday,” said Sueme. “I certainly always wanted to meet them.”
The group hugged, cried and one by one Bulger’s family members listened to Sueme’s heartbeat.
“It was the best $100 tickets we ever bought,” said Bulger’s sister Katie Seper, who attended the game with her husband, Chris. “It was very surreal.”
Listening to their brother’s heartbeat gave them peace and Roesch said it was a special moment for her husband, Jake, too.
“Donovan was at my house almost three days a week and every Saturday with us,” said Roesch. “Donovan and Jake were best friends and he was like a brother to him.”
The families’ moments together, captured on video and shared on Facebook, have been viewed thousands of times.
“I’ve watched it about nine times today and still get the chills,” said Sueme.
As the game played on, the group bonded over the chance encounter and exchanged stories. In the letter Roesch had written to Sueme she mentioned that Bulger was proud of his Italian roots. Sueme and his wife told the siblings that they visited Italy and lit a candle for him.
“My husband wouldn’t have been able to go on that trip without the gift Donovan gave him,” Liza Sueme told CNN. “It’s just all overwhelming to think this all happened.”
Becoming an organ donor was a conversation Bulger had with his brother Brenden Bulger growing up.
“We aren’t going to need our organs and there are other people out there that need them,” Brenden Bulger told CNN.”People stay on those transplant lists for so long so why not try to help.”
In 2019, 9,502 transplants were performed in the United States between January and March, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). More than 111,000 people in America are currently on a waiting listing, according to UNOS.
The siblings said they are very proud of their brother for deciding to be a donor.
“This gives us peace,” said Seper. “We know he isn’t coming back but a sigh of relief knowing they are so appreciative of all that.”
The group is already bonding and planning their next outing.
“Next time we will bring along a stethoscope,” said Brenden Bulger, who attended with his wife, Angie.
The siblings are hoping to make a Build-A-Bear for each of their children that will hold a recording of their uncle’s heartbeat.
“We went to the game as six but left as nine,” said Roesch. “We are family.”