UNION, NJ — Joseph Burlew Jr. was a 2005 Union High School graduate who saved people in both life and death.
As a McCabe Ambulance Service EMT in Bayonne, he once jumped into the Newark Bay to save a woman after her car went into the water. He was awarded an EMT of the Year Award for that in 2008, and his story made the front page of The Jersey Journal.
“He was first on the scene,” Christine Burlew said of her son as she held a scrapbook documenting the rescue. She had given the book to her son as a Christmas gift shortly before he died.
Burlew was injured while working in the military and died from a heroin overdose in March 2016, according to his father, Joseph Burlew Sr. He was 28. But he had checked off that little box when he first got his driver’s license, the one that made him an organ donor.
“He had a beautiful life,” Joseph Burlew said of his son. “He came back (from the military) injured and he didn’t beat it.”
Joseph Burlew Jr.’s parents, 9-year-old daughter and his young niece met the recipient of his heart for the first time on Sunday, Nov. 12.
It was a teary-eyed moment for 46-year-old Jeff Blomkvist, who came with his wife and three daughters to meet the Burlews.
Burlew’s parents, who have lived in Union for 30 years, and the Blomkvists, of Asbury Park, exchanged hugs and small mementos at the NJ Sharing Network headquarters in New Providence. The nonprofit organization matches patients with organs and tissue. More than 4,000 New Jerseyans are awaiting transplants, according to the organization.
Blomkvist was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect in 2011 and placed on a waiting list for a transplant in 2014.
He finally received Joseph Burlew Jr.’s heart at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in 2016.
Doctors told Blomkvist that the average wait was about three months for a heart transplant. But when three months came and went, he tried to push it out of his mind.
His wife, Melissa, said they tried to keep his condition from their children.
He finally got the call telling him he would receive a heart while he was at a birthday party.
“I almost dropped the phone” Jeff Blomkvist said. “I just ran out of the room. I practically fell over getting the call.”
Jeff Blomkvist, who works in the finance industry, placed a recording of his donated heart beating inside a small stuffed animal for the Burlews, along with a framed picture of him with his wife and three daughters, ages 13, 16 and 17.
In return, the Burlews gave the Blomkvists a plush heart that had been made with one their son’s shirts. They listened to Blomkvist’s heartbeat with their son’s stethoscope, too.
“Jeff living meant that someone had a loss,” Melissa Blomkvist said of her husband’s donor. “We all think about it. We all do. It’s not taken for granted.”
Joseph Burlew Jr.’s organs helped save six lives, including Jeff Blomkvist’s. His liver, lungs and kidneys were also donated and transplanted.
Christine Burlew said she has reached out to all six recipients, but just two were comfortable with communicating with her. Jeff Blomkvist said he was “appalled” to learn this. He’s the first recipient the Burlew family has met in person.
Christine Burlew said it was important for her to meet the recipient of her son’s heart.
“For me, it’s bringing awareness that organ donation is a great thing. To know he lives on is absolutely amazing.”
A wall inside the NJ Sharing Network’s building lists each donor’s name, and Linda Woznicki, the organization’s family services coordinator, said that no matter how sad each case is, there’s always some good that comes out of it.
“That helps us do our jobs every day,” Woznicki said.