How one artist’s heart, stilled by a fatal blow, saved another one’s life

David Mendelson-Curry, second from left, is living with the transplanted heart of the late Matt Callahan. He got together Monday at the Baum Ave Market in St. Petersburg with his husband, Ty Mendelson-Curry, left; Callahan's widow Erika and her son Logan Callahan, center; and Callahan's father and stepmother Michael Callahan and Inguna Callahan. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE   |   Times]
David Mendelson-Curry, second from left, is living with the transplanted heart of the late Matt Callahan. He got together Monday at the Baum Ave Market in St. Petersburg with his husband, Ty Mendelson-Curry, left; Callahan's widow Erika and her son Logan Callahan, center; and Callahan's father and stepmother Michael Callahan and Inguna Callahan. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
Published October 7
Updated October 9

TAMPA ó The sound was faint at first, but adjusting the stethoscope helped Erika Callahan detect the thumping of a familiar heart.

Closing her eyes, Callahan pretended that the sound also was coming from the same chest where she had laid her head countless times.

"I fell back into those moments where Iíd heard it before," she said. "It was peaceful."

Her husband, muralist Matt Callahan, 40, died after getting punched outside a Tampa bar six months ago.

His heart went to David Mendelson-Curry, a 51-year-old Apollo Beach man diagnosed with stage four heart failure in 2016.

PREVIOUS: Fatal punch on Gandy median leads to manslaughter charge in Tampa muralistís death

Mendelson-Curry met with the family of his benefactor Oct. 3 ó Callahanís wife, father and stepmother. During dinner, Mendelson-Curry pulled out the stethoscope.

"It was a wonderful moment," said Callahanís stepmother, Inguna Callahan. "And knowing someone else is alive because of Mattís heart is the only bright spot in this sad story."

The family also had another present for Mendelson-Curry, an artist who specializes in panel paintings.

They presented him one of Callahanís paint brushes.

"Since the transplant I have been going through survivorís guilt," Mendelson-Curry said. "But I have a second chance. My art before the transplant was more of a hobby. Now my whole focus is my art."

He is also helping in efforts to create a legacy for Callahan.

On Monday night, Mendelson-Curry and the Callahan family got together again, this time at the Baum Ave Market in St. Petersburg during a reception celebrating the 2018 Shine Mural Festival. Callahan had been a part of the festival.

Mendelson-Curry met Callahanís 5-year-old son Logan and promised he would help raise money for a scholarship in the muralistís name.

Tallahasseeís LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts will bestow the annual scholarship. The school once named Callahan high school artist of the year and provided a scholarship that helped pay his tuition at the Atlanta College of Art.

The new bond between the two families was born in tragedy, but it seems to them as if it was meant to be ó and not just because the same heart has been shared by two artists.

"Erika keeps saying it is surreal because there was a series of events leading up to the transplant that are unexplainable," Mendelson-Curry said.

As they first met for dinner, Mendelson-Curry talked about a trip to New Orleans in August 2008 that was cut short by a Hurricane Gustav. He marveled during the visit at the beauty of the cityís iconic St. Louis Cathedral.

Mouth agape, Erika Callahan pulled out her cell phone to show him a photo of her and Callahan outside the same church during the same hurricane week. Itís where Callahan proposed to her.

"We may have walked right by each other," Erika Callahan said.

In another twist of fate, Mendelson-Curry and his husband Ty Mendelson-Curry dined at Chef Art Smithís Homecominí in Disney Springs in January 2017 ó and took a photo with the celebrity owner in front of a Callahan mural.

"The chances of that are bizarre," Mendelson-Curry said. "Just over a year later, heíd die, and Iíd get a second chance."

Callahan died when his head hit the street after he was punched April 11 outside the Warehouse Lounge on Gandy Boulevard, Tampa police said. According to witnesses, Callahan approached Keith Mauga again and again that night, trying to apologize over an encounter the two had weeks earlier. Mauga, 34, faces a charge of manslaughter in the death.

News reports of the death and the timing of the organ donation led friends of Mendelson-Curry to wonder whether Callahan was the donor.

Tampa General Hospital said it could not tell him but agreed to send a letter from Mendelson-Curry to the donorís family.

"My family and I will always remember you and your loved one," he wrote, "and in our remembering, we will be called to always act to our highest good."

Callahanís wife replied, and after chatting over e-mail and social media, they decided to meet.

Transplant recipients also benefited from the donation of Callahanís two kidneys and liver, said his father Michael Callahan. Two of the three transplants were successful, the family was told, but thatís all they know.

"I think recipients are afraid they wonít be accepted by a donorís family," Michael Callahan said.

"To some extent they feel guilty that they are alive and a loved one is dead. For all of us, it is a wonderful feeling to see such a nice gentleman alive and well."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

   
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