Tearful reunion between heart transplant recipient, family of boy who died 7 years ago

By Brittany Taylor - Digital News Editor, Sophia Beausoleil - Reporter

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Texas - A couple received an emotional and unforgettable surprise gift on the day of their wedding day Friday afternoon. Years after losing their son, they met the man who is alive today thanks to their child's heart.

The Tragic Accident

In June 2012, 11-year-old Colton Berckenhoff was killed in an accident in Porter, Texas. The boy's father, Dean Berckenhoff and his then-fiancée, Monica, made the tough decision to donate their son's organs.

"It wasn't easy, it was a really hard decision to make because you know, that’s your family, that's someone that you love," Monica said. "Colton is a hero, he's more of hero than any person that I know, he saved more than just one life by donating his organs."

Colton Berckenhoff

He would have been 18-years-old this year if he were still alive. To his family though, his spirit lives on and they will forever remember him as a loving child.

"Colton was full of life, he was always laughing," said Amanda McDonald, Colton's aunt. "He was just the sweetest kid in the entire world, he loved football and he loved the Houston Texans."

The Recipient

Travis Stufflebean has been in and out of the hospital for most of his life.

"It all started back in 1991. I was born with a bad heart and all through my life I've dealt with open heart surgery," said Stufflebean, 28, who is from Arkansas.

He said most of his life he was told he would never hook up to a heart, but then in 2012, his family's prayers were answered.

"I got the phone call on the 27th of June 2012 and June 28th of 2012 I got the heart I needed. It was unreal to be honest," Stufflebean explained.

He was 20 at the time and had been on the transplant list for three months.

"God has his hand in this completely, because people who are on the list they wait for a very long time," said Colton's aunt.

"Because of how fast it happened, you know, a lot of people wait a long time and never get one. I was very fortunate," he explained. "I feel overwhelmed. Jesus has really done amazing things. I believe this is all Him."

Over the years, he had talked to Colton's family, but he never met the Texas couple. That all changed on Friday.

The Plan

Colton's father and stepmother, Monica and Dean, have been together for 10 years. They have two other children, a boy and girl, and, according to McDonald, decided last year to get married.

"We wanted to connect my sister and my brother to Travis and we looked for an opportunity," said McDonald. "When my sister told me that they were getting married, I went to my mom and told my mom about it, and my mom had already been praying for a way to bring them (Stufflebean and Colton's parents) together," McDonald said.

She went on Facebook and found Stufflebean. That's when the plan started to come together.

"One thing led to another and here we are," McDonald said. "To our amazement and our shock and awe, he said, 'Yes' (to coming down) we all fell in love with him. He's not just a guy that received a heart. He's a part of our family."

Her family paid for his flight down, but Monica and Dean had no idea.

The Surprise

Friday, July 19, marked Dean and Monica's anniversary, and they figured it would be the best day to get married.

Inside a Montgomery County court room, the couple said, "I do," in front of their two children, family and friends. But before the judge pronounced them as "Mr. and Mrs," he asked if anyone had anything to say.

It was in that moment, Stufflebean walked towards them, a moment where all of their children were with them.

"Colton's not here physically, but he's here," said Judge Wayne Mack, who married the couple.

Monica embraced Stufflebean, so did Dean. But there was more to the surprise.

The heart recipient brought a stethoscope so that the couple could listen to their son's heartbeat.

"You're bringing the heart back home. To me, this is just a temporary heart. I'm just borrowing it. To me, this is where it belongs, with this wonderful, awesome family," Stufflebean said.

There wasn't a dry eye in the room.

"Overwhelmed, very overwhelmed, very surprised. We weren't expecting that at all," described the couple after the ceremony.

Colton's father said Friday afternoon gave him closure.

"Thank you a lot. It means a lot. I never thought we would get to meet him. Thank you," Monica said, crying.

Thanks to Colton, Stufflebean is now a youth pastor in Arkansas.

"When you die, you're not going to take that," Stufflebean said. "Donate because with Colton, he has given me the opportunity to be a children's pastor now and to do so many things I never dreamed of. God is really good. You know, if it wasn't for Him, none of this would be possible."

The Health Resources and Services Administration said 113,000 people are now on the National Donor Program waiting list, and that over 20 people die a day waiting for organs, but yet 36,528 transplants were done in the last year. It is said a person is added to that list every 10 minutes.

To learn more information on how to donate your organs, click here.

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