4th of July tragedy brings two families together with one heart

Published: Sep. 26, 2019 at 8:40 PM EDT
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A bizarre tragedy during a Fourth of July celebration has forged a unique friendship. The bond two women share came out of tragedy and loss for one, and survival for the other. It started on a night many people in the Lansing area will never forget.

It could have been anyone in a crowd of thousands that gathered to watch Lansing’s Fourth of July fireworks seven years ago. As the pops of color rose over Lansing’s Riverfront Park, police say someone up to a mile away fired a gun up into the sky. That bullet landed in the crowd hitting Michelle Packard in the head. That bullet brought heartbreak to one family and hope to another.

Elyse Packard is Michelle’s younger sister. “She was dorky, and fun and energetic, light-hearted, like everybody’s best friend. She was just the energy you wanted to be around.”

Elyse, (remember that name) makes her living pumping energy into crowds at Michigan State University’s athletic events. She coaches the team on the sidelines providing fans with energy, happiness and hope. She was on a road trip for work when she got the call something terrible had happened to her only sibling, her big sister. She drove through the night to get to Sparrow Hospital. Packard said, “At that point, I went to hold her hand and I knew that her soul had passed on and moved to the other side.”

There was never any question about what would happen next. The Packard family openly talked about organ donation, as far back as Elyse can remember. Michelle was a member of Mensa, a woman of science, working on her PhD in Bio-systems Engineering at Michigan State University. Packard said, “It was the simplest and easiest part of my day to say “Yes, donate her organs.” This is what she wanted, and others are now able to have time with their loved ones they wouldn’t have been able to have.”

While the Packards were grieving. Another Elise was waiting. Elise Cake, who lives in the Kalamazoo area, said, “We prayed a lot. But its a hard thing to pray for. We’re looking for a heart, but that also means someone is losing their loved one, and how do you pray for that, you know?”

Cake is the mother to four young daughters, three are triplets born a year earlier. The pregnancy took a toll on Cake's heart. She had a procedure to fix it shortly after the births, but it wouldn’t be a permanent fix. Elise needed a new heart. “I can still remember that moment the phone call came in and Brian actually answered the phone so his first thoughts, were he was getting excited and 'Here’s the phone call, this is it, this is it! Honey, you’re going!' I went the opposite, I was terrified. Can I make it? Is this my new life, or is this the end of it?"

Michelle’s tragic end would give this Elise a second chance. The transplant was a perfect match. Cake said, "I feel good. I don’t have any problems. I feel like a mom of four kids should feel."

But this story wouldn’t end there. A year after Elise received Michelle’s heart. She received a letter from Michelle’s mother. It sparked a special relationship, now merging two families with one heart.

Brian Cake, Elise's husband, said, “The very first time we got to meet them was actually at a Gift of Life Rally right in downtown Lansing.” That was 6 years ago. Now Elise and Elyse have formed a special bond.

Packard said, "I think I connect to Elise because we are the same age. We do have the same name. Her husband has the same birthday as me. It’s a lot of coincidences that to me said, ‘This was supposed to happen.’ I know Michelle wanted to be a mother. So in my mind, she is."

Cake said, “I think God has put so many little pieces together to form our puzzle and its fun to see them really make a masterpiece.”

The families get together when they can and they talk about Michelle, who they believe is up above, smiling.

Packard said, "We just hug and to feel my sister’s heart beating is something. I mean her heart is still beating. (Laughs). She’s got to be around here!"

Michelle’s heart isn’t the only organ that helped save a life. Her family met the woman who received her lungs, and knows of a teenager who received one of her bones to save a leg. There are likely many others they don’t know about.

To learn more about organ donation, click on the link included with this article.

Copyright 2019 WILX. All rights reserved.

“We prayed a lot.  But its a hard thing to pray for.  We’re looking for a heart, but that also means someone is losing their loved one, and how do you pray for that?” -- Elise Cake, Heart Recipient

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