By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
They might have been friends, these two boys.
Sure, a few years separated them, but Hunter Tuzinski and Beckett Culp shared a love of Hot Wheels, basketball and making people happy.
Hunter was just 7 when he died in a tragic accident at his home in northwest Indiana last June.
Beckett was just 3 when he received a lifesaving liver transplant at Riley Hospital for Children last June.
The two boys never got to meet, but their families came together Friday in a special way to honor Hunter and his gift of life.
It was Hunter’s liver that IU Health surgeon Dr. Richard Mangus transplanted into Beckett, giving the spirited little boy who radiates joy his best chance at a full life.
What better way to celebrate Hunter’s life (and what would have been his 8th birthday Thursday) than to collect Hot Wheels and donate them by the truckload to Riley.
That’s what Beckett’s parents, Klark and Lauren Culp, and Hunter’s mom, Nakita Tuzinski, did, amassing more than 2,500 Hot Wheels toys that will be divided between Riley and a Chicago children’s hospital where Hunter received care.
Mattel, the maker of Hot Wheels, got wind of the donation and pledged to contribute to the cause as well.
Hunter’s mom and Beckett’s mom first connected online at Thanksgiving, but both families, including grandparents and siblings, met for the first time over dinner privately Thursday night.
On Friday, they came to Riley to deliver the vast collection of toys to Riley Cheer Guild Director Ann Hannan and her team.
Beckett and his siblings, along with Hunter’s brother and sister, pitched in to unload some of the toys from the truck into bins for eventual sorting in the Riley toy room.
The scene would have made Hunter happy, his mom said.
“He loved to make other kids happy, to make them laugh.”
That includes his baby sister, Lecie, who was just 1 when Hunter died.
“They were inseparable,” Tuzinski said. “He always wanted to hold her.”
It didn’t take much to make her son happy, Tuzinski said. One day it might be chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, and the next day a cardboard box might do the trick because the first-grader could create something out of it.
“He was very smart. We always said he was going to be an engineer because his mind was always working,” she said.
And like his late father, “he was obsessed with cars.”
Count Beckett among the car-obsessed too. He has his own collection of Hot Wheels at home, but his parents have taught him the value of giving back.
This wasn’t the first time he and his family made a sizeable toy donation to Riley. Last fall, they brought Hot Wheels, baby dolls, LEGOs and infant toys to Riley kids to celebrate Beckett’s fourth birthday.
Like other patients, Beckett received many toys during his lengthy stays at Riley before and after his liver transplant. He thought it only fitting to help replenish the hospital’s supply for other kids.
But this day wasn’t about her son, Lauren Culp said, even as the preschooler worked the lobby of Simon Family Tower at Riley like a pro, visiting with Dr. Mangus, hepatologist Dr. Jean Molleston and other team members involved in his care.
“I want all the attention to be on Hunter and the amazing things he has done and how he is changing so many lives,” Culp said. “How can you thank someone for such an amazing gift?”
For Dr. Mangus, the answer is simple.
“What I tell my patients is the best way to say thank you is to live a healthy life.”
Through the gift of organ donation, Hunter saved four lives, his mom said, something that would make her son proud.
“Our family suffered a great loss, but to see that he helped so many people, it’s amazing,” Tuzinski said. “I’m super thankful. Hunter loved making kids smile, so that’s the best thing we can do.”
As Beckett gave out hugs and smiles freely during the toy drop-off, one of those hugs was saved for Tuzinski, a moment that the grieving mother will treasure.
“I feel Hunter would want me to know this family,” she said. “He’s done so much good.”
She keeps her son close in many ways. A tattoo of his heartbeat adorns her forearm, and a gold necklace featuring his image hangs close to her heart.
But tucked inside that heart is the love she will feel for her little boy forever.
“I’m honored to be his mom.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com
Four-year-old transplant patient “gives the best hugs” - Beckett Culp received a donor liver in June. Today, he is giving back the best way he knows how – with toys for other kids at Riley.