After receiving a life-saving heart transplant, Kadie Neuharth felt compelled to reach out to her donor’s surviving mother. Both would forever be bonded by their experiences.
BY CLARISE LARSON
On a sunny summer day in 2018, Kadie Neuharth waited in a transplant house in Arizona. Thousands of miles from home, the 31-year-old woman was confront- ing the consequences of a rare heart disease that threatened to kill her, while clinging to hope that a new heart would find her.
On that same night, Beatriz Lazcano was facing a devastating reality of her own. Just hours before, her teenage daughter, Breanna Diaz, was killed suddenly. Now, the heart that had pulsed in Breanna that very day was en route to give life to a stranger.
That stranger was Kadie Neuharth.
Through her donation, Lazcano saved Neuharth’s life and inspired the young woman to pay the gift forward by living her life in service to those with parallel struggles. The story of these two women, entirely independent yet intimately inter- twined, is proof that we all have the capacity to change the lives of people we don’t even know, and may never meet.
Years later and with her illness behind her, Neuharth still vividly recalls the moment she found out that, at just 27 years old, her heart was rapidly approaching its expiration date.
Growing up in Mitchell, South Dakota, Neuharth was a dancer. She made it through childhood and into her 20s living what she described as an active and healthy lifestyle. Normal.
After years of seeing doctors about her constant headaches and lightheadedness, she found herself at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic where she finally got an answer.
Neuharth was diagnosed with restrictive idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a rare heart disorder with an unknown cause and no known cure.
The disorder is most commonly diagnosed during childhood, and the survival rate beyond two years from the diagnosis is less than 50 percent. Its most common presentation is congestive heart failure, and for many patients a heart transplant is necessary.
Growing up, Neuharth had dreams of living a life of ad- venture and travel. Her family says she never lost the courage and spunk that comes with youth, calling her “a spitfire all her life.” No one was prepared to hear that the brown-eyed girl with the wide smile was living with a broken heart.
“It was like the pit in the stomach we were hoping it wasn’t,” Kadie said. Her original plan was to hold out for a cure. But the cure never came, and her condition only worsened.
Her heart went in and out of arrhythmia where it beat abnormally, necessitating five cardioversions — essentially, getting her heart shocked back into rhythm. Neuharth also underwent multiple ablation procedures, where surgeons cauterized tissue in her heart. The ablations were supposed to stop her arrhythmia, but they were just a Band-Aid. Time ticked on.
Three years into her diagnosis, at the age of 31,Neuharth’s life didn’t look like that of the active, spunky girl she had once been. Her lips were always blue from lack of oxygen and she required a medicine pump. But she kept holding on.
It wasn’t until she got a kidney infection that things took a turn for the worse. Neuharth’s body grew extremely weak as it started to show more intense signs of heart failure, she said, something her earlier procedures couldn’t prevent.
At the end of June of 2018, Neuharth was accepted onto the heart transplant list. Her doctors advised her to transfer to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, which often had shorter wait times, averaging eight to 10 months. But even making the list was not an easy feat. Neuharth described the process as having to be sick enough to need a heart, but healthy enough physically, emotionally and mentally, to accept one. Doctors had to evaluate every aspect of her life before giving Neuharth the OK.
Neuharth was in Scottsdale four weeks before she got the call that would change her life — and eventually the lives of so many others. She underwent the transplant the very next day, on August 15, 2018.
Neuharth said she was scared, but she didn’t let that stop her. When she awakened from the transplant, Neuharth couldn’t believe the change. It was as if years of hardship and illness had been instantaneously reversed.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can breathe,’” Neuharth recalled. “I think that heart failure was so slow and spaced out, I didn’t realize how bad I had felt. You don’t realize how bad you’re actually feeling until you feel good again. It felt like I had something pushed on my chest for so long, and then all of a sudden it was light and airy—I felt good.”
“She was back to Kadie,” her grandmother said.
After what Neuharth described as an “amazing recovery,” requiring less than a week in the hospital, she started the road back to normal with a heart that worked the way it was supposed to. At the time, she didn’t know anything about her donor, Breanna or “Bree,” who died at just 19.
It wasn’t until a year after the surgery that Bree’s mother, Beatriz, received a letter Neuharth had written while she was in the hospital. All transplant patients have this option, but only some write the letters.
Lazcano wrote back, and she and Neuharth began talking. Because of the pandemic, it wasn’t until February of 2022 that they met in person—almost four years after the transplant.
“I don’t have words to describe it,” Neuharth said, tearing up. “I had kind of been staying on my side of the lineup until then, but once I met her everything became real. That’s when all the emotion hits and you just have this huge sense of gratitude in life.”
Lazcano said though Neuharth was a complete stranger, she felt comfort knowing that her daughter’s heart impacted the young woman’s life so intensely, something she never had imagined was possible.
“She’s an amazing soul, Kadie,” Lazcano said. “She tells me how well she takes care of her heart. She reminds me a lot of my daughter. She’s strong; she’s a strong person—and that’s how my daughter was.”
Lazcano said she misses her daughter every single day. She described Bree as someone who never failed to make anyone smile; who was strong, stubborn and resilient; and who was beautiful inside and out. And though the pain of her daugh- ter’s absence will never fade, she said meeting Neuharth was a gift.
“It’s something I can’t really explain, but when I met her I felt like something inside rested a little bit—it brought a little bit of peace,” Lazcano said. “I will never forget my little girl and her big smile. I know she is continuing to live in Kadie. I am grateful to be a part of Kadie’s life and get to see her live her life to the fullest as I would’ve for Bree.”
Now, Neuharth uses her story to do what Bree’s heart has done for her—offer the gift of hope to complete strangers. Neuharth speaks with people who have gone through or are going through similar health battles. She hopes to bring more awareness to and educate people about organ donation and the importance of advocating for your own health.
“Organ donation is the greatest gift you can ever even think of giving,” Neuharth said. “It opens your eyes to all the things that before this would stress you out, make you sad or mad. It kind of opens your eyes to how little some things are in the grand scheme of life.”
Though she still has good and bad days, Neuharth said she will forever be grateful for the life she now lives, which for a while, didn’t seem possible.
“It’s a huge gift because every day I think of how lucky I am and appreciative and grateful for all those small things,” she said. “To be able to appreciate just to breathe and talk and go outside and walk around and just feel good.”
Clarise Larson is a writer and photographer based in Juneau, Alaska. Originally from Minnesota, she earned a journalism degree at the University of Montana and fell in love with the people and culture of the West.