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The heart of the matter: LI mom, recipient of her teen son's heart to run 5K

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© Courtesy Karen Hill

New York Daily News

It’s a tale of two strangers united by tragedy, their hearts now beating as one that belongs to neither.

And to both.

Long Island mom Kelli Cutinella and Fordham University student Karen Hill, living separate lives in different worlds, were thrust together without warning by the life-saving organ implanted into the younger woman’s chest on Oct. 3, 2014.

The donor was Kelli’s son Thomas, age 16 and fatally injured two days earlier in a freak high school football accident.

The pair now invoke “family” to describe their ties — Cutinella and her husband even attended Hill’s wedding earlier this month. They will join forces again Sunday morning at the annual Tunnel To Towers Run, where both will carry the late teen’s heart and spirit along the 5K route that ends at the World Trade Center site.

“It’s not Tom running, and that’s sad,” said Cutinella, 48, of Wading River, L.I. “But it’s actually, physically, it’s his heart. He’s with her, and she’s a great person. I feel blessed that Thomas’ heart went to such a great person.”

The eternally grateful Hill echoes the sentiments of the mother of four.

“It’s really indescribable — so hard to articulate,” reflected Hill, now 25. “I’m so grateful for this family. It’s a blessing, they’re such wonderful people and I’m so fortunate to have them in my life.

“And I’m glad to have Thomas there for them in some way.”

Kelli and Karen had little in common before making their permanent connection. Cutinella was dealing with the sudden and shocking death of Thomas, while Hill was waiting for a transplant that would keep her alive.

Hill became a cross-country runner in middle school until a diagnosis of congestive heart failure sidelined her at age 15. By 2014, she was told that a transplant was necessary to keep her alive. The faltering college student spent a month in the hospital, hooked up to the IVs and electrodes that became fixtures in her rapidly dwindling lifespan.

It took another death to save her life.

Cutinella and her husband Frank were raising their brood out in Suffolk County, unaware of the young woman with the failing heart. Their eldest child Thomas, No. 54 on the Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats football team, played linebacker and guard on the high school squad. Though only a junior, he had already emerged as a highly regarded leader among his teammates. The athletic youth played lacrosse as well, and dreamed of attending West Point — inspired by the sight of cadets holding American flags when he ran with his mother in the 2012 Tunnel to Towers event.

“That whole experience — he said, ‘That’s going to be me one day,’” recalled Kelli.

On the rainy evening of Oct. 1, 2014, Thomas collided helmet-to-helmet with a player from nearby John Glenn High School. Cutinella went to the ground, returned to his feet — and then collapsed.

He died a short time later despite emergency surgery, leaving behind a devastated family, heartbroken friends — and a lasting legacy of life-saving love.

Only months earlier, while taking his test for a driver’s permit on his 16th birthday, Tom decided to sign up as an organ donor.

Suddenly, sadly, he became one too soon.

The teen’s corneas, liver, kidneys, pancreas, skin, tissue, bone and veins were given to various recipients.. But his heart went to Karen Hill, one of the four people rescued by Thomas’ gift.

“The day of the transplant, when I got the call, all they told me was the donor was a young, teenage boy,” recalled Hill. “The staff knew who he was, but they weren’t allowed to tell me.I was just happy that it was his heart I was getting.”

Early the next year, Kelli reached out to Karen. An invite to the Cutinella home followed, with Karen coming out in May to meet the whole family. An emotional getting-to-know-you session ensued, with the entire clan turning out to greet her and two other organ recipients.

“I got to see Thomas’ bedroom,” she recalled, referencing the repository for relics from his athletic career. “The family told us about his love of football, and what type of person he was. Hearing that I thought, ‘He seems like such a wonderful and rare teenage boy.’”

Their friendship was forged in that first visit. Nine months after the transplant, Karen focused her attention on getting back into shape. She started running again. And she started hearing from Kelli about once a month, just checking in to say hello.

And on Sunday, they will reunite for the race that Kelli recalls as “Thomas’ absolute favorite run.”

The Cutinellas continue to focus attention on football-related head injuries and organ donation through The Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation, created to keep “Thomas’s legacy of leadership, kindness and selflessness alive.”

“Tom is a hero who saved many lives through his selfless gift,” said Helen Irving, the president and CEO of LiveOnNY, which oversees organ donation and transplantation in New York. “His decision, and his family’s support for donation in the midst of their deepest sorrow, is an inspiration to all New Yorkers.”

Both Kelli and Karen are looking forward to their get-together before the race. The pair will attempt to run together, but the crowd of participants makes it difficult. Either way, Kelli and Karen will catch up at the finish line.

“When we meet up, it feels like we’re two old friends,” said Hill. “We really do feel like a natural part of each other’s life. She’s just one of the kindest, warmest, most welcoming people.”

Plenty has changed for both women in the last four years, though there’s always one constant: The heart of the young man that brought them together.

“This is Tom’s legacy,” said Kelli. “She’s Tom’s legacy. You can’t put a price on us having this relationship.”

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