Willis bride and groom meet recipient of 11-year-old son's heart during wedding

WILLIS, Texas (KTRK) -- The tears were flowing as friends and family watched the union of Monica and Dean Berckenhoff, but what the bride and groom didn't know was they were about to get another big surprise from a stranger who came all the way from Arkansas.

"It all started back in 1991, I was born with a bad heart," said Travis Stufflebean of Fayetteville.

Stufflebean tells ABC13 Eyewitness News he was born with a heart condition where half of his heart did not function.

"All through my life, I've dealt with open heart surgery and I've had five, and Colton was the sixth one," he said.

The man was the recipient of a new heart when he was 20 years old. The heart came from Dean's 11-year-old son, who suddenly passed away in June of 2012.

"He was just the sweetest kid in the entire world and he loved football and he loved the Houston Texans," said Amanda McDonald, Monica's sister.

Back in December, Amanda and her parents hatched a plan to bring Stufflebean to Willis to meet Berckenhoff for the very first time.

They also planned the meeting to happen on Monica and Dean's wedding day.

"My sister is my best friend, and right now she thinks I'm in the courthouse in Conroe filing paperwork," Amanda said with a laugh.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there are currently 113,000 men, women and children on the national transplant waiting list as of January 2019. In 2018, there were 36, 528 transplants performed. Every day, 20 people die waiting for a transplant.

"The polls show and the statistics show that 95 percent of Americans support organ donation but only 56 percent or 58 percent actually register," said Montgomery County Judge Wayne Mack, who officiated the wedding.

Judge Mack, who also acts as a coroner for the department, explains another hurdle can happen when registered donors do not notify their family members, who typically have to approve the donation.

Dozens of family members filled the courtroom and watched as the bride and groom exchanged vows, while Stufflebean patiently waited in a side room.

Halfway through the ceremony, Amanda surprised the couple by announcing someone was there to see them and Stufflebean came walking out.

The couple became overwhelmed with emotions.

"It's been seven years (since Colton passed) and it's something we've always wanted," said Monica.

The couple said money and timing were always two big reasons why they never made the trip to Arkansas.

Stufflebean arrived with a stethoscope and allowed Monica and Dean to hear Colton's heartbeat -- something he said the heart had been longing to do.

"Because you're bringing the heart back home," Stufflebean said. "To me, this is just a temporary heart. I'm just borrowing it. To me, this is where it belongs, with this wonderful and awesome family."

For more information on organ donation, please visit organdonor.gov.

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