Trista Stockwell wrapped her arms around her son, Shawn, in the family's Eagle River home last week. She wiped tears from her eyes. She couldn't believe Shawn, born with half a working heart, would graduate from high school in a week. For so long, she said, so many people thought it would be impossible. 

"I love you so much," Trista told him. "I'm so proud of you. Have I told you that today?"

Nearly nine years ago, Shawn received a life-saving heart transplant at Stanford Medicine's children's hospital in Palo Alto, California. Born with a rare and complicated heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, he had spent years fighting for his life.

"There were times that we didn't know if he would make it another day," Trista said.

Shawn Stockwell laughs at home with his mother, Trista. Shawn was the recipient of a heart transplant in 2008. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell laughs at home with his mother, Trista. Shawn was the recipient of a heart transplant in 2008. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

After waiting nearly three years on the transplant list, Shawn received his new heart in July 2008, 10 days shy of his 10th birthday.

For Shawn, the heart meant he would live. For Trista, it meant that maybe her son would drive a car one day, and "dare we dream, actually graduate high school," she said. But as she imagined the new possibilities on the day of the transplant, she said her thoughts also turned to the parents of the donor and the sadness they must have felt at that very same moment.

"I knew somewhere there was a mother whose heart was shattered," she said.

As Trista recounted the past last week, she occasionally paused to hug Shawn, now 18 years old and nearly 6 feet tall.

While they both cried that evening when Trista discussed his health complications and his heart, they also laughed often about other memories of Shawn's childhood —the bad art projects, the old friends, the sporting events.

Shawn's father, George, and his younger sister, Haley, joined in on the conversation as it moved from surgeries to school to Shawn's upcoming graduation celebration. They rattled off the names of those invited to the party, including neighbors, cousins, grandmothers, friends and the most anticipated guests: the parents of the boy whose heart saved Shawn's life.

Shawn Stockwell, right, talks with Kelly and Jamie Bosley at a graduation party for Stockwell. Shawn has the transplanted heart of their son, Carson Bosley, who died in 2008. The families met for the first time in 2016. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell, right, talks with Kelly and Jamie Bosley at a graduation party for Stockwell. Shawn has the transplanted heart of their son, Carson Bosley, who died in 2008. The families met for the first time in 2016. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

'Organ donation was an easy choice'

Kelly and Jamie Bosley walked up the stairs at the Stockwells' home early Saturday evening and into a room brimming with people, nearly all of whom they had never met.

There was Shawn's kindergarten teacher and his doctor, and a grocery store employee who kept in contact with the Stockwell family during the wait for a transplant, becoming a close friend. There was the couple from Nevada who met Shawn at the Ronald McDonald House in California and whose son also had hypoplastic left heart syndrome. He died at age 7.

The Stockwells and their guests were quick to welcome the Bosleys, hugging them and shaking their hands.

On the fireplace mantel behind them was a photograph of their son Carson Bosley, Shawn's heart donor. Carson stood on a beach, smiling, with his arms in the air.

On the mantel of the Stockwells’ Eagle River home, a photo of Carson Bosley is displayed at bottom left. Shawn Stockwell, in photo at upper right, was the recipient of Carson’s heart after a 2008 transplant. Carson, of Newport Beach, Calif., died of a brain aneurysm at age 7. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
On the mantel of the Stockwells’ Eagle River home, a photo of Carson Bosley is displayed at bottom left. Shawn Stockwell, in photo at upper right, was the recipient of Carson’s heart after a 2008 transplant. Carson, of Newport Beach, Calif., died of a brain aneurysm at age 7. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

A decade ago, while Shawn grew sicker as he waited for a new heart, the Bosleys were in Newport Beach, California, raising their silly, caring, athletic son, Carson. Carson loved the ocean and sports, particularly baseball.

"He was super active and extremely healthy," Kelly said. "The biggest shock for us was to one day have a kid who never had anything really wrong with him all of a sudden be in the hospital fighting for his life."

"It was like the flip of a switch," she said.

Carson died of a brain aneurysm in July 2008. He was 7 years old. About a thousand people attended his funeral, Jamie said. Children from Carson's school wrote the Bosleys letters about their classmate. One girl wrote that when she fell on the playground, Carson was the only child who stopped to help her up.

"He was that kind of kid," Kelly said.

In 2008, Shawn Stockwell rests with his parents Trista and George Stockwell, at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., after Shawn’s heart transplant. (Courtesy Packard Children’s Hospital / ADN file photo)
In 2008, Shawn Stockwell rests with his parents Trista and George Stockwell, at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., after Shawn’s heart transplant. (Courtesy Packard Children’s Hospital / ADN file photo)

The Bosleys decided to donate Carson's organs. They said that's what he would have wanted. His liver, lungs, kidneys and heart were sent to children on donor lists across the country.

"Organ donation was an easy choice for us because I knew that that would be his choice," Kelly said, tearing up. "I truly think that was his choice."

A missing letter

The Bosleys almost didn't find out about Shawn.

Trista said Shawn received the heart as an anonymous gift. Recipient families can choose to send letters to the families of their donors through a third-party agency, but are told not to contact them directly if they somehow figure out their names.

The letter took Trista two years to write.

In the months after the heart transplant, Shawn had seizures and strokes brought on by an allergic reaction to anti-rejection medication. Trista said she didn't want to write the donor family as her son hovered so close to death. But as it became apparent he would get better and finally go home, her emotions about the letter shifted to guilt.

"It took me a long time to write the letter because I felt that no matter what I said, it was, 'My son's doing awesome. Your son is dead,' " she said. "So I wrote it and I rewrote it and I wrote it and I rewrote it."

Trista eventually brought the letter to a social worker at the California children's hospital but it took years to reach the donor family. She said she wondered for a long time why she didn't hear back.

In California, the Bosleys had always hoped to hear from the families whose children received Carson's organs. About a month after Carson died, Kelly said, they received letters about where his organs went. She said one letter said Carson's heart went to a boy from Alaska and he remained in the hospital. She assumed that meant the transplant had not gone well.

About five years went by before an employee at the California hospital discovered Trista's letter in a drawer. Somehow it had been misplaced, Trista said.

In 2015, the Bosleys finally received the long letter about Shawn and a stack of photos from his childhood.

"In it was all Trista's information, and I emailed her that very day," Kelly said. "Like right away."

The Stockwells were the only donor recipient family to reach out to the Bosleys, Kelly said. The families emailed back and forth, deciding to meet in person in California in February 2016.

Shawn Stockwell shoots hoops with friends at Eagle River Lions Park a week ago. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell shoots hoops with friends at Eagle River Lions Park a week ago. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Trista said that at the time, Shawn suffered from survivor guilt, carrying a sadness with him as he grew up in Eagle River. She said Shawn needed to meet the Bosleys, to know they were OK.

On their trip to California, Shawn brought a stuffed-animal moose. Inside the toy he put a recording chip that, when pressed, played the sound of his heartbeat. He gave it to the Bosleys so at any time, they could listen to their son's heart.

"They have completed Shawn," Trista said of the Bosleys. "He came back with the weight of the world off his shoulders."

Trista invited the couple to Shawn's graduation, and she hoped they could have a small role in the ceremony since their role in her son's life was so big.

Shawn Stockwell gets help putting on his tie from Kelly and Jamie Bosley just before his high school graduation ceremony Tuesday. Shawn lives with their son’s heart, and he thinks the heart can sense when the Bosleys are near. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell gets help putting on his tie from Kelly and Jamie Bosley just before his high school graduation ceremony Tuesday. Shawn lives with their son’s heart, and he thinks the heart can sense when the Bosleys are near. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

'We didn't think this day would come'

Shawn wanted to spend time with the Bosleys before he graduated Tuesday.

In the Bosleys' hotel room in downtown Anchorage that afternoon, Jamie helped Shawn with his tie. They passed time sharing funny moments from the previous evening's dinner and talking about their plans after the ceremony.

Shawn said it's hard to explain to other people, but he feels like his heart can sense when the Bosleys are near.

"It just makes me happy," he said.

Shawn Stockwell greets his friends before the Eagle River High School graduation. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell greets his friends before the Eagle River High School graduation. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

At age 18, Shawn said he's pretty healthy but he still has to take about a dozen pills every day and check his blood pressure often. He still has to go to California every six months to meet with doctors, and when he lifts up his shirt, he will always have the scars that slice down his chest and across his side from countless surgeries.

But in many other ways, Shawn is living the life of a typical teenager. He plays video games and drives to a nearby park to play basketball. He forgets to take out the garbage. When the Bosleys dropped him off at Sullivan Arena for his graduation ceremony, he got celebratory handshakes and fist-pounds from friends.

Shawn Stockwell raises his cap at his graduation ceremony on Tuesday at Sullivan Arena. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell raises his cap at his graduation ceremony on Tuesday at Sullivan Arena. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

In the arena stands, about 30 people filled in a section of seats to watch Shawn graduate.

Near the end of the ceremony, a teacher started to announce the graduates' names in alphabetical order and the students filed out of their seats to receive their diplomas. The Bosleys walked onto the stage too.

When the teacher read Shawn's name, Trista jumped out of her seat in the stands, shooting her arms up in the air and cheering. She then sat down and folded over, her head in her hands. George held up his phone, photographing his son.

"Most of our lives, we didn't think this day would come. I'm just so happy," George said.

On the stage, Shawn shook hands with school officials, eventually reaching the principal. He handed the diploma to the Bosleys, who handed it to Shawn. They smiled and posed for photographs.

Shawn Stockwell receives his high school diploma onstage with Jamie and Kelly Bosley at his side. Eagle River High School Principal Martin Lang is at left. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell receives his high school diploma onstage with Jamie and Kelly Bosley at his side. Eagle River High School Principal Martin Lang is at left. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Trista and George Stockwell watch tearfully as their son’s high school graduation ceremony comes to a close. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Trista and George Stockwell watch tearfully as their son’s high school graduation ceremony comes to a close. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell, left, laughs with his father, George, after receiving his high school diploma. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Shawn Stockwell, left, laughs with his father, George, after receiving his high school diploma. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

"We're so proud of him," Jamie Bosley said, his eyes swollen and red. "He worked hard for this."

Shawn said he plans to visit the Bosleys again this summer. He said he will enroll at the University of Alaska Anchorage to become a social worker. He wants to work at a hospital with sick kids, like himself.

Kelly said it's easy to see the similarities between Shawn and her son Carson, both sweet, caring and sensitive boys. When she looks at Shawn, she said, "I see a joy in him that just warms my heart."

"It's almost like a little bit of Carson's spirit is there with him."

George and Trista Stockwell hug their son, Shawn Stockwell, after his high school graduation ceremony on Tuesday. “Most of our lives we didn’t think this day would come. I’m just so happy,” George said.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
George and Trista Stockwell hug their son, Shawn Stockwell, after his high school graduation ceremony on Tuesday. “Most of our lives we didn’t think this day would come. I’m just so happy,” George said.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Photojournalist Marc Lester contributed reporting to this story.