Derrick Merritt was born in Atlanta and loves the city life. But deep inside beats the heart of a country boy who loves horses, outdoors and the slower pace of rural Georgia.
The maintenance director for Emory University enjoys sports, music, traveling and learning new things. Maybe that's why he understands the little bit of Bulloch County that beats a steady rhythm inside his chest.
The heart that swelled with love when Merritt asked his fiancée to marry him is not the same heart that fluttered with anxiety as he asked that same girl on their first date.
Derrick Merritt is his own man, but deep inside, there is something else; a little part of a small town teenager whose life was ended too quickly. In 2008, Merritt became the new host for Portal teen Thomas Puckett's heart.
Puckett died Aug. 17, 2008, five days after he was severely injured in a construction accident on the Georgia Southern University campus when a 2,000 pound piece of equipment slid off a forklift and crushed him. On Aug. 18, his heart was transplanted into Merritt's chest.
Only 17 when he died, it had not been that long before when he told his father Tony Puckett he wanted to be an organ donor. They were in line to get Thomas' driver's license when the teen made the decision.
"Duh, I won't need them," he said, according to Tony Puckett.
Little did anyone know how soon Thomas' decision would matter.
Over the course of a few years, with his teenage heart in a new home, the Pucketts and Merritts met and formed a special bond.
Since her son's death and the subsequent transplant, Thomas' mother Susan Puckett became involved with LifeLink of Georgia, the agency that helped connect her donor son with the recipient.
"I'm so happy that Thomas literally lives on, but it's sad for me," she said. "I know for sure he's in Heaven, and with this world as crazy as it is today, I know he's in a much better place."
Relief and sadness
Merritt developed congestive heart failure at 29, and was waiting on a donor heart to save his life when Puckett lost his own.
Realizing that someone's death gave him a second chance created mixed emotions, he said. When he learned of the donor heart, he felt numb.
"It was amazing and unbelievable, but it was strange to balance the relief I felt with the sadness that I felt for the family of the donor," he said. "I was thankful that Thomas ... made the decision to donate his organs and save the lives of others."
Susan Puckett said through working with LifeLink she has learned a great deal about both organ donors and recipients.
"I have learned that it is probably just as hard to be a recipient because you are praying for an organ for yourself, yet you know someone is going to die, probably a young person," she said.
Merritt, now 32, said he does feel like a new person after the transplant.
"I feel a lot more energetic than I had pre-transplant, but mentally I feel more motivated to work hard every day," he said." Some days I don't even want to waste time sleeping, I just want to work toward my goals and excel. I am definitely aware that Thomas lives inside of me now, his heart beats inside of me and we are spiritually connected."
Meeting Merritt recently in Atlanta and knowing Thomas's heart lives inside him has been an emotional roller coaster, but the Pucketts are happy to be a part of Merritt's life.
"The lesson I have learned is life on this earth is not about stuff or things," Susan Puckett said. "It is about relationships, first with God, then with the ones you love, and then with everyone else."
She said she is "totally amazed how intertwined our lives have become."
Meeting the Pucketts
Meeting the parents of the young man whose heart has now become his own, Merritt said: "It was surreal, but joyous. Even though we come from different backgrounds, they accepted me as if I was their own son. Not just because of the situation, but they are genuinely nice people."
From talking to the Pucketts, Merritt learned he and Thomas had a lot in common in spite of their differences.
"The Pucketts talked a lot about Thomas' focus, drive and generosity," he said. "I too am always helping friends and family in any way that I can, whether driving people where they need to go, financially, or just taking food to the hungry. I do what I can.
"I'm also very focused, becoming a full time student while working full time in order to get my degree and transition my career."
Merritt has worked for the past nine years as a maintenance technician at Emory University in Atlanta. He hopes to have a career in information technology.
He has noticed changes in himself since the transplant, and believes his spiritual connection with Thomas, along with his life-altering experience, are the catalysts.
"Since the transplant I've become more patient," he said. "I've also noticed that I'm even more motivated to succeed and accomplish my goals. My fiancée likes to joke that I've loosened up with money since the transplant."
He realizes he has a second chance and is determined to make the most of it.
"Overall, I'm trying to be the best 'me' that I can be-because I know Thomas did the same."
Susan Puckett still grieves for her son, but is overjoyed to see Merritt enjoying the life that was given as a gift from Thomas.
"I was so happy to see Derrick on Facebook parasailing," she said. "I told him when we met to live his life to the fullest, because that is the way Thomas lived and would want his heart to go on - living life at 90 miles per hour!"
Witnessing a miracle
She credits God for the miracle she has witnessed.
"God is so awesome because there is no way I could feel or think the way I have come to feel or see all the good that has come from losing Tom without strength from God," she said.
Merritt agrees, but also thanks Thomas for his decision.
"I'm forever thankful for Thomas' decision to be an organ donor," he said. "He saved not only my life, but the lives of others. I'd like everyone to continue to pray for my family and me, while I continue to pray for Thomas' family and friends.
"I want them to know that I'll live my life to the fullest with this ‘beautiful heart.'"
That's what his surgeon called the ultimate gift of life as he transplanted Thomas Puckett's heart into Merritt's body, he said.
Thomas Puckett would have turned 21 Monday had he lived and his family will remember him Monday at Millhouse Steakhouse. Friends are welcome to stop by and wish the family well.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.