Losing a child is the worst thing any parent will go through, and Kelli Cutinella from Long Island could attest to this when her son died in a football accident. However, grief can also bring people together, and through her son’s passing she found a deep connection with a complete stranger.
When Tom Cutinella had a helmet-to-helmet collision on the football field in October 2014, it was immediately clear that it was an unfair blow. His father Frank was watching in the stands and said as much to his friend alongside him. But when the teenager failed to get his feet, the extent of his injury soon became more apparent.
Frank Cutinella told ESPN in 2018 that he knew his son was dying as the latter lay at his feet on the field. Later, at Long Island’s Huntington Hospital, friends and family gathered to say their last goodbyes to the 16-year-old. But if Frank and Kelli could take any comfort at all, it was in how their son often put others before himself.
Meanwhile, Fordham University student Karen Hill was told she wouldn’t survive unless she received a new heart. The young woman wasn’t someone the Cutinellas knew at the time, yet soon she would become an important connection to their beloved son.
Many young people can struggle to figure out what they want from their lives. However, Tom Cutinella knew from the age of ten exactly what he wanted. His plan was to attend West Point military academy after graduation, a decision he made after watching his first army football game with pals.
Tom was into sport big time – as well as his beloved football he also played lacrosse. He liked running too, and the teenager took part in the Tunnel To Towers event in 2012 alongside his mom. The run is a memorial to firefighter Stephen Siller, who lost his life in the Twin Towers attack on 9/11.
Father of five Stephen had just come off his shift on that fateful day in September 2001. He had learned of the plane striking the World Trade Center’s North Tower over his scanner on his way to play golf with his brothers. He then called his wife Sally to say he was returning to work and to tell his brothers he would see them later.
However, en route to the site, Stephen’s truck was held up at the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, shut off for security reasons. Unabated by the circumstances, the firefighter continued his journey on foot through the tunnel and to the Twin Towers, carrying 60 pounds of equipment. However, Stephen sadly never made it back.
Stephen’s story inspired the Tunnel To Towers run, with participants retracing the firefighter’s route from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center. Tom’s mom Kelli told the New York Daily News in 2018 that when he saw the cadets on the run, he told her, “That’s going to be me one day.” But before defending his country, his high school football team had a winning streak to defend.
Tom’s love of football came from his police detective dad, Frank. For his father’s part, he played for an undefeated 1987 championship team at Ward Melville High School. The cop had a passion for the game which he passed on to his three boys, and at age seven, his eldest son showed a flair for the sport, so Frank started teaching him.
Tom played as a linebacker for his team at Shoreham-Wading River High School, and standing at six feet tall and weighing 185 pounds, he no doubt cut an intimidating figure on the field. However, underneath was a caring teenager who went out of his way to help others.
Tom conducted himself with a level of respect and selflessness that resonated with his peers. Despite being so young, his actions were so self-assured even the team’s senior captains stopped and listened when he addressed the players. And, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in October 2014, they had a job to do.
Shoreham-Wading River High School were on a roll with a streak of wins behind them. It was a run the team wanted to maintain to clinch the Long Island championship, which would be a first for the school. And on that day in 2014, they were playing John Glenn High School and were 17-12 up in the third quarter.
It was the first ever game Tom’s mom missed. Kelli was on a field trip with Tom’s sister, Carlie, else she would have been there, cheering on the Shoreham-Wading River High School team as usual. His dad Frank, however, was watching from the stands as Tom lined up for a second-and-five play.
When the play got underway, Tom took a heavy hit to the side of the head from the crown of a defender on the opposing team. Frank apparently commented to his friend, “That’s a cheap shot,” immediately recognizing a contentious move on his son. Nevertheless, he expected Tom to get up, brush himself off and rejoin the huddle – but that didn’t happen.
Although initially Tom arose following the heavy blow, he immediately collapsed again – only this time he didn’t get to his feet. The first indication Frank had that something was seriously wrong came when his younger son, Kevin, frantically gesticulated him over to Tom lying on the ground.
As Frank walked over to Tom, he knew his son’s injury was a serious one. The teenager was taken to Long Island’s Huntington Hospital where he was rushed into surgery. Tom’s blow to the head from an opposing player had caused a traumatic brain injury, and, tragically, there was nothing doctors could do.
Family and friends then gathered around Tom’s hospital bed to say their last goodbyes. However, his heartbroken parents knew exactly what Tom would have wanted to happen next. It was something he had talked about just a few months earlier, and it was a wish that they intended to honor.
Tom turned 16 on July 22, 2014, and on the same day, he took a test to get his driver’s permit and expressed an interest in becoming an organ donor. That’s just the type of person Tom was – a giver. And state law meant that he could indeed donate, provided that the family opted for it.
Tom’s parents were aware of his intention to donate his organs, and with his desire expressed to them, they honored his wishes. Though their son’s life had been cut tragically short, Tom continued to help others through the donation of his heart, kidneys, liver, corneas, skin, bone, veins and tissue.
Elsewhere, a student at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, then received a call that saved her life. Karen Hill told the New York Daily News, “The day of the transplant, when I got the call, all they told me was the donor was a young teenage boy.”
But before we discover what happened to Karen after Tom’s organ donation, let’s learn a little about her. In middle school, she had developed a love of cross-country running, but her passion came to an abrupt end when, aged 15, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. That means fluid had collected around her heart, affecting its ability to pump effectively. Six years later, a transplant became the only option left that could save her.
“It turned into heart failure when I was in high school and I was able to manage it through college with medication,” Karen explained to Inside Edition in October 2018. “It was literally the day before I graduated college that they told me I needed a transplant.”
Graduation, then, became the least of Karen’s worries as her life turned into a fight for survival. For a month she stayed in hospital, linked up to an IV and electrodes. However, as her prospects grew bleaker, a new heart suddenly became available – it was Tom’s.
Talking of Tom’s organ donation, Karen continued to the New York Daily News, “The staff knew who he was, but they weren’t allowed to tell me. I was just happy that it was his heart I was getting.” However, that changed when Karen received an unexpected phone call early the following year.
In early 2015 Kelli contacted Karen, along with two others who received organs from her son. The mom extended an invitation to meet the entire Cutinella clan at their Suffolk County home. But in particular, when Karen and Kelli’s two separate worlds connected that day, they felt an instant connection.
“I got to see Thomas’ bedroom,” Karen recalled to NY Daily News. His bedroom had been kept as a memorial to the teenager showcasing all his athletic achievements. She added, “The family told us about his love of football, and what type of person he was. Hearing that I thought, ‘He seems like such a wonderful and rare teenage boy.’”
Kelli and Karen felt a special bond during that visit. And although the meeting was only intended to be a one-off, annual gatherings were arranged off the back of their connection. Kelli explained to Inside Edition, “It helps with our grief.” Their get-together then led to regular text messages and phone calls too.
Within a year of her transplant, Karen felt the urge to get fit again and attention then turned to the running she had enjoyed as a teenager And since she no longer needed to carry around the cumbersome left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to keep her heart pumping, there was nothing holding her back.
An LVAD is an artificial pump implanted into the patient’s chest to help it push blood around the body. It does, however, have external components, such as power packs and a computer controller that Karen found to be inconvenient and awkward to carry around.
As Karen described to Inside Edition, “Getting the transplant was really giving me more than my life back, but also just my freedom to do whatever I wanted when I wanted to.” And, as it happened, there was one thing that she planned to do which held a special meaning for her new friend Kelli.
Nearly a year after her transplant, Karen ran the three-mile Tunnel To Towers race – the same event Tom ran alongside his mom in 2012. And as a result of their blossoming friendship, Kelli ran the race alongside her. They were even joined by Tom’s sister, Carlie, all running in Tom’s memory.
Over the next three years, Kelli and Karen then became so close that they described their bond as a “family” one. So when Karen married her longtime boyfriend in September 2018, it was perhaps inevitable that the Cutinellas were on the guest list. After all, the day wouldn’t have been possible without their son’s heart.
“It just meant a lot to me to have them there and I know it must be hard for them not having Thomas,” Karen told Inside Edition. “It’s unfortunate circumstances that we came across each other, but I also couldn’t imagine what my life would be like not having these wonderful people there now.”
Furthermore, an appreciation of the Cutinellas is one that is felt among all of Karen’s friends and family. She continued, “At one point, my mom and dad were giving a toast and everyone was thanking the Cutinellas. Everyone stood up and clapped for them.” The adulation, however, was something Tom may have evaded.
As Kelli told Inside Edition, “[Tom] never needed to be acknowledged for any kind acts he ever did.” Describing him as a “very humble person,” she continued, “He never needed a pat on the back, so he would be very humbled and honored.” Nevertheless, in the subsequent years, the Cutinellas worked to pay tribute to their late son.
Elsewhere, after Tom’s passing, his team continued their 2014 season undefeated, and in doing so won the County and Long Island Championship, along with The Rutgers Trophy. Tom was also awarded a posthumous scholarship to the United States Military Academy to play football for West Point. Furthermore, tributes to the teenager can be seen on the Shoreham-Wading River High School football field, team jerseys and pre-game rituals.
Tom’s sewn up jersey bearing his number 54 still hangs in his bedroom. It’s also the number the barber who regularly cut the teenager’s hair proudly applied to his shop name in his honor. Elsewhere, Tom’s dad Frank advocates for a change in football gameplay to root out moves like the one that injured his son, while Kelli raises awareness of organ donation.
However, through the tragedy, Kelli has a new cheerleader in Karen. The latter told the New York Daily News, “When we meet up, it feels like we’re two old friends. We really do feel like a natural part of each other’s life. She’s just one of the kindest, warmest and most welcoming people.”
Frank and Kelli’s advocacy work is carried out through the Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation. And while Kelli may have lost her son, she nevertheless feels connected to him through Karen. The former explained, “This is Tom’s legacy. [Karen is] Tom’s legacy. You can’t put a price on us having this relationship.”