Run for Daughter of Former Student Who Donated Heart

Shakonna Grier

When 24-year-old former Montclair State University student Shakonna Grier died three days after giving birth to a daughter, Bryana, in 2007, her heart also saved the life of John Acquaro, then a 54-year-old Long Island man who was days away from dying from a cardiac condition.

On Sunday, September 25, Acquaro is hoping for a strong turnout at the first Donate Life Children of Heroes 5k Run/Walk in Brookdale Park (Montclair/Bloomfield), which is being held to raise funds for 4-year-old Bryana Grier’s future college education expenses. The registration fee is $25 per participant.

The day promises to be emotionally charged as it will mark the first time since his heart transplant that Acquaro and his family will meet his donor’s mother, sister, and other family members.
“John has been so wonderful. I just want to embrace him and feel my sister’s heart beating through his chest,” said Shakonna’s sister Tanisha Grier, 36, a special education teacher at Charles H. Bullock Elementary School in Montclair. Tanisha graduated from Montclair State in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is now raising her niece, along with her own 17-year-old daughter.

Acquaro was diagnosed with a rare form of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy when he was 31 years old. The condition causes the heart muscle to become thick, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood. Death can come suddenly from abnormal heart rhythms called arrhythmias or from blockages of blood inside the heart.

A six-foot-tall, 185-pound carpenter, Acquaro collapsed at work in 1995 and had to be rushed to a hospital to be resuscitated. From then on, his health steadily deteriorated. By the time he received Shakonna’s heart at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital on April 1, 2007, he was an invalid who had lost 35 pounds and was so weak he could barely walk 20 feet.

Today, he competes in triathlons. He rarely lets a day go by without spending an hour and a half working out at the gym or going on a 35-mile bike ride. “My life was just ordinary before. Since my transplant, it has been extraordinary,” Acquaro said. “I can do things that I never dreamed I could do.”

He feels a strong bond with the African American woman who gave him a second chance at life. Shakonna, who suffered from sickle cell anemia, died of complications from a stroke related to childbirth. “This girl was going into something that was a great occasion and I know she wasn’t ready to die. For her, I just feel that I have to take the best care that I can of this heart, which I do,” he said.

Shakonna was enrolled at Montclair State in 2002 and 2003, but health issues prevented her from continuing her studies. Active as a community volunteer, she hoped to major in sociology and have a career as a child advocate, her sister said. She wrote poetry, played the flute in high school, loved fashionable clothes, and dreamed of being a model.

After learning of his donor’s identity two years ago, Acquaro has maintained regular Internet and phone contact with Tanisha Grier. He sent the medal he got for participating in the Nautica New York City Triathlon in 2010 to Shakonna’s mother, who lives in Montclair. She keeps it hanging on the wall of her living room.

Featured prominently on Acquaro’s desk at home is a framed photo of Shakonna. A key volunteer with the New York Organ Donor Network, he has raised over $170,000 for the non-profit, federally-designated organ procurement organization over the last three years, mainly through sporting events.

Acquaro organized the Run/Walk in Brookdale Park because it is one of Bryana’s favorite places to play.  “We go there almost every day. She loves to ride her tricycle there,” said Tanisha, who, with Acquaro, will also take part in the activity.

The Run/Walk is a USA Track & Field (USATF) sanctioned event and is run on a USATF certified course. Registration starts at 7:30 a.m. and the run kicks off at 9 a.m. Water, fruit, and bagels will be available for participants. Winning runners will receive awards in various categories.

Update: Run Raises $2,400

A field of nearly 70 runners took part in the Donate Life Children of Heroes 5k Run/Walk, which raised $2,429, before race expenses, for Bryana Grier’s college fund. Men’s winner Jeff Benjamin, 46, of Staten Island, crossed the finish line in 18:57.1 minutes; the women’s winner was Alexandra Niles, 28, of Montclair, with a time of 19:38.7 minutes.

Medals were presented to the top runners in eight age categories by Tom Fleming, who won the New York City marathon in 1973 and 1975.

John Acquaro, the heart transplant recipient who organized the run, was pleased with the initial effort and hoped next year’s event would be even bigger. “This is just the beginning,” he promised.