When Shawn Stockwell crossed the stage at the Sullivan Arena last Tuesday night for the Eagle River High School graduation, the second biggest miracle in his life occurred.
At least in his mother’s heart and mind.
Stockwell, a lanky young man like so many other of this year’s crop of high school graduates touting aspirations for his future while celebrating the milestones that mark his youth, celebrated the joy of high school graduation by waving his cap to the crowd and wearing a big grin across his face.
Yet for Stockwell and his family, the 2017 graduation for the ERHS Wolves was much more than the receipt of a diploma.
It was the victory at the end of a nearly decade-long struggle to keep the young man healthy and in school; a struggle to keep his the new heart he received nine years ago beating strong and the rest of his body cooperative with what was at times considered a foreign object inside of him.
“There were so many times we did not know if Shawn would make it another day,” Trista Stockwell, his mother, said. “Yet, here he is.”
At the tender age of nine years, Shawn received a heart transplant in 2008 at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, California. His then three-year wait on a transplant list and his family’s “on hold” status living at the Ronald McDonald House nearby was over – now his mother, sisters and his father, George – who commuted between Alaska and California to maintain the family’s roofing business – were there to support Shawn through surgery and recovery.
But this week, the gathering of the Stockwell family and their supporters was all about the validation of his struggle, the celebration of his life and the connection and joy it has brought to his supporters here in Eagle River as well as another family whose own devastating loss has been diminished in the triumph of watching Shawn cross the stage in cap and gown.
Shawn’s heart came via the death of Carson Bosley – a seemingly healthy, athletic boy from Newport Beach, California who in 2008 at the age of seven died from a brain aneurysm. His heart was a perfect match for Shawn.
At the time, Trista told this reporter the ache she felt in her heart that her son’s life could possibly continue at the expense of another child. Back in 2008, she hoped that someday she could hug the mother of her son’s heart donor and tell her “thank-you” for the gift of life. She hoped the two families could connect. She dared dream their lives might intertwine.
That dream entered reality this week with Shawn’s graduation from high school.
Kelly and Jamie Bosley, Carson’s parents, were there Tuesday night to walk across the stage with Shawn as his name was read over the loud speaker in the Sullivan Arena in Midtown Anchorage. Earlier that day, Jamie helped Shawn with his tie as he prepared for graduation. Trista, overcome with emotion when hearing her son’s name called Tuesday night, had jumped out of her seat in the audience with her arms up in the air cheering but was quickly back in her seat with her head in her hands and tears streaming down her face.
The Stockwells had met the Bosleys in Feb. 2016 at a time when Shawn was suffering the all-too-common survivor guilt that can haunt a transplant recipient. His mother knew he needed to meet the parents of his heart. He needed to share his life with them; he needed to know they were okay. Before leaving Alaska for the visit to the Bosley family in California, Shawn put a recording chip in a stuffed-animal moose and recorded the sound of Carson’s heart beating on to the chip. It was Shawn’s way of giving Carson’s heart back to Kelly and Jamie.
After that trip, Trista told this reporter that meeting the Bosley family was the best medicine Shawn’s emotional heart could receive.
“They immediately hugged him and they listened to Carson’s heart beating inside of Shawn,” Trista said showing this reporter photos of Carson’s parents using a stethoscope placed under Shawn’s shirt. “It was an incredible healing moment for all.”
Naturally, the Stockwells wanted the Bosleys to be present at graduation. Plans were made last fall as Shawn entered his senior year – a rite of passage George and Trista were unsure would ever occur.
Shawn’s kindergarten teacher, Diane Mucha of Eagle River, celebrated along with Shawn’s family.
She has been the “official unofficial” cheerleader for the Stockwell family since his diagnosis was announced to the Alpenglow Elementary School community in 2005. Back then Mucha organized the school community’s participation in the Heart Run in honor of Shawn. She kept Shawn on track academically even when his faltering heart kept out of her classroom. She spent many unreported hours at that time working with him off her Anchorage School District clock. She organized fundraisers and contacted local newspapers and radio stations in an effort to raise awareness of the young boy’s situation.
During the past whenever this reporter crossed paths with Mucha in the community, her optimism for Shawn was apparent. She kept close tabs on his situation – she knew the ins and outs of every medical struggle; every seizure; every allergic reaction that occurred. She kept the community informed, but she always held out not just hope, but a sincere belief, that one day she would see that boy with the blond hair that came in to her kindergarten classroom stand as a young man as an ASD graduate.
Two weeks ago when this reporter saw her at a local store, Mucha gleefully said, “Shawn is going to graduate!”
And thus begins yet another adult life.
Shawn’s heart will always require monitoring. A couple years ago, he experienced a few setbacks and was told he might even require a new heart.
But his plans to become a social worker to work in a hospital with children facing the same scenario he endured take first steps this fall at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His plans to honor the gift he received remain on track.
He is a bit of a quieter young man. His words are fewer than other teens, but as the saying goes,
“still waters run deep,”
and it is apparent that behind his quick smile are pondering thoughts of the blessing his life has received and perhaps will give back to others.
During the course of writing about Shawn for nearly a decade, his response to this reporter when asked how he feels about his new heart has remained as consistent as the beating his doctor’s hope to hear each time they examine him.
“It just makes me happy,” he said.
Editor’s Note: In 2005 when the Stockwell family announced Shawn’s condition to the Alpenglow Elementary School community, a group of children living in a cul-de-sac off Driftwood Bay Drive that included Sarah Grabowski and my son, Ian, decorated rocks with Shawn’s name on them. They called them “Shawn Rocks,” and sold them at their lemonade stand. An Anchorage radio station – sorry I do not remember which one – made an on-air announcement and the stand was overwhelmed with customers for the next two hours. Grabowski’s mother, Sandy, gave the proceeds to the Stockwell family. Ian’s “Shawn Rock” is still in his collection. Congratulations Shawn on your graduation!