On the night before his 2019 heart transplant, while lying in a hospital bed in Nashville, Chris Hopkins couldn't shake a troubling thought: For him to live, someone would have to die.
Hopkins, 65, a Chattanooga investment advisor and Chattanooga Times Free Press financial columnist, recalls thinking that a family somewhere was about to experience an unspeakable tragedy. Even though Hopkins knew he would not be responsible for his heart donor's death, the scenario was still unsettling.
"You think, 'Some family is going to lose somebody, (and) it's going to change their life forever,'" Hopkins said in an interview. "You cope with that."
For more than two decades, Hopkins' heart had been slowly deteriorating. He even had devices planted in his chest that would kick-start his heart if it failed. When triggered, those internal defibrillators felt like a baseball bat hitting the back of his head, he said.
But by 2019, his congestive heart failure had become so advanced a transplant was the only option to extend his life, his doctors said. Because of a history of infections, Hopkins couldn't use an external pumping device designed to circulate a patient's blood while they wait for a transplant.
Hopkins needed a new heart, immediately.
Meanwhile, Steven Kerr, a 24-year-old man in Little Rock, Arkansas, died in an unspecified accident. His family knew Steven had been a committed organ donor and directed hospital staff to prepare his body accordingly. Soon, Hopkins' heart surgeon was on the way to St. Louis, where the body had been taken, to harvest the heart.
Hopkins said he struggled with weight issues and hypertension for most of his life.
"I developed bad habits," he said. "I was a pipe smoker, and I was overweight."
Then, one night in 1998, at age 39, Hopkins began having chest pains and sweating profusely.
"I went right to the phone and called 911, and I recognized what it was," he said. "I was on the verge of losing consciousness."
A blockage in his left anterior descending artery led to his heart attack. Often called the widow-maker, this type of blockage only has a 15 percent survival rate, Hopkins said. An angioplasty and stent saved his life and led to major lifestyle changes as Hopkins tried to improve his health.
"I started going to YMCA," he said. "The first time I went someone said, 'You should try swimming.' I got in the pool and got 5 feet from edge and had to turn around."
Next, he turned to an exercise bike and weight training, which began an ongoing workout routine Hopkins credits with getting him through the next 20 years of his life. At one point, he could bench press 350 pounds.
Still, he needed a series of surgeries and implants (although no open-heart bypass surgery) to keep his heart functioning.
Then, in 2018, his health took a nosedive. An infection in one of his legs led to a near amputation. The ordeal weakened his heart to about 15 percent efficiency, Hopkins said.
By early 2019, his situation was so dire that Hopkins went to St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville to lay the groundwork for a heart transplant.
"My wife (Lori) and I talked this through," Hopkins said. "We knew that it was our last option."
About 3,000-4,000 heart transplants are done in the United States each year, Hopkins said, and by the time he had moved to the top of the recipient list, he was "all in" on the procedure.
To lighten the mood in the hospital, he took to telling jokes to nurses and wearing a Groucho Marx nose and glasses. If he didn't make it through the transplant surgery, he wanted people's last memories of him to be happy ones.
As he was being wheeled into an operating room at St. Thomas about a dozen staff members lined the hallways wearing Groucho glasses, too. Ultimately, the transplant surgery was a success, and Hopkins settled into a monthslong recovery in Nashville.
About seven months after the transplant, Hopkins got the first crumbs of information about his donor. He learned his transplanted heart had come from a young man named Steven, who died in an accidental way in Arkansas. He also learned Steven loved the outdoors and was a "people person" who easily warmed to strangers.
When the organization that manages heart transplants opened the door to communication between Hopkins and the donor family, both sides wanted to continue to connect — but oddly, their attempts to contact one another by letter were somehow fumbled, perhaps because of COVID-19.
For years, Hopkins and his family searched newspaper records throughout the Midwest and South trying to find information about a man named Steven (with a mother named Laura) who might have died around the time of Hopkins' transplant.
Then, after months of trying, they essentially gave up.
Around Thanksgiving 2023 Hopkins decided to go to work on the mystery again. Through a series of events, he and his daughter, Jeannette Young, were able to locate a woman named Laura on social media who had apparently lost a son named Steven.
Lori Hopkins reached out on social media to the woman, who lived in Fairfield, Ohio.
"Lori wrote: Is this Laura Watson who lost a son in 2019?" Chris Hopkins remembered. "Within 2o seconds, she wrote back, 'I am.'"
For her part, Watson, a 55-year-old dental office worker, said in an interview last week that hearing from the Hopkins family filled her with conflicting feelings.
"When they (reached out), it just brought so many emotions," she said. "My body was shaking. All I could say is, 'I am.' I couldn't think of words at that time."
Last month, Chris and Lori Hopkins traveled to Ohio to meet Laura, her husband, Mike, and their daughter, Rachel. They also met Steven's former wife, Lizzay Kerr-Bellingham, who has remarried since his death.
On the trip, Hopkins told the family he was trying to be a good steward of Steven's heart. He told them he had lost 100 pounds and works out in the gym every day.
Before he had left Chattanooga, Hopkins borrowed a stethoscope from a friend so Steven's family could hear the heart beat in his chest.
"All of them listened to the heart," Hopkins said. "There were definitely tears. It was quietly emotional. ... It was very emotional for me, too. Trying to put myself in their position. I shed a couple of tears, too.
"There is no question that there is tremendous emotional satisfaction (from meeting them)," he continued. "They are planning to come down in March to visit. It has definitely brought things full circle."
Laura Watson remembers hearing the prenatal heartbeat of her first-born son, Steven, all those years ago. Hearing that same heart again in the chest of another human was a powerful experience.
"You hear your child's heart when they are in the womb, and it sounds like a washing machine," Watson said in a telephone interview. "Nothing could ever compare to that sound.
"To have heard my son's heart beating in Chris ... gives me a sense of peace and joy," she said. "It brought tears to my eyes. That was an awesome moment and I'll never forget it.
"That's something only God can do," Watson continued "He worked all of this for his greater good."
'More people to love'
When Steven was about 12 year old, Laura Watson remembers taking him to meet her biological parents. She was adopted but had decided to track them down.
On the way home from the meeting, young Steven told his mother, "Now we have more people to love."
"That was my son," Watson said. "He was a wonderful person."
Watson said she feels the same way about meeting Chris and Lori Hopkins: Now she has more people to love.
"I fell in love with Chris and Lori the minute I spoke with them," Watson said. "They are not just friends, now ... they are my family."