by Emma Polen | features editor
Feb. 17, 2022
Filled with excitement, sitting in the car after passing his driver’s test, 16-year-old Eli Bussotti turned to his mom, pointing to the little red heart on the bottom right corner of his new license and said in a sing-song voice, “Organ donor.”
At the time, Bussotti’s mother, Joy Krumenacker, didn’t think much of the moment.
“There wasn’t even any conversation around it, because it’s just something you do,” she said. “You just do these little things that could make a huge difference.”
Bussotti’s choice to check the organ donor box that day meant more than either of them could have predicted.
On Oct. 19, 2018, Bussotti was in a fatal car crash on his way home from school. A “fluke” accident, Krumenacker called it.
Five miles down the road, middle-aged Chad Rivotti was watching coverage of the crash on the local news. He prayed for the grieving family, a feeling he worried his family might soon find themselves enduring.
Rivotti had a failing kidney and his health was drastically declining. He had been on the organ transplant list for more than a year at that point, and his ability to perform day-to-day activities was becoming increasingly difficult.
The day after Bussotti’s accident, Rivotti was out in his yard when he received a call from his transplant coordinator. They had a donor match, and he should be ready for surgery later that day.
Excitement quickly arose for him, then sudden guilt and loss for the donor and their family followed as Rivotti packed his bags for the hospital. He prayed over the loss of this anonymous donor. He had no idea that his two prayers — one for the crash victim and one for his prospective donor — were for the same grieving family.
Ten days after recovering from the successful transplant, and dealing with tremendous survivor’s guilt, Rivotti was inspired to write a letter to the donor family. He did not yet know who his donor was, but he experienced extreme difficulty while writing to the family.
“I went through 12 renditions of the letter,” Rivotti said. “It was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire lifetime. What particular words can you write, in what order, and how do you get your thoughts and emotions and feelings out?”
Rivotti held off on sending the letter until March, five months after the transplant.
Rivotti was still reeling from the extraordinary second chance at life he had been given, when he received a letter from Krumenacker and her family telling him the identity of his donor.
“Within the first line of that letter, I read ‘Our dear son Eli,’ I burst into tears,” he said.
Bussotti was a 17-year-old senior at Highlands High School when he died. One thing everyone around him noticed was his ability to light up a room and help those in need.
On the day the entire senior class was supposed to take their yearbook photo, Bussotti was running late from class — probably hung up with friends, his mother said.
Just as the photographer was about to snap the picture, Bussotti slid into the front row in his typical casually cool way. He was literally the center of the crowd.
Krumenacker recalled this special gift her son had to fit in wherever he went.
“He would walk into a room, and he would light up the room. Everybody was always so excited to see him. That’s just such a unique characteristic.”
Relationships were something Krumenacker said her son valued the most.
“He loved people,” she said. “He loved to be around people, he loved to pull people together and just had this really sort of remarkable way of making people feel seen and heard.”
It wasn’t just people who Bussotti cared for, though–it was all living things.
Bussotti worked in a greenhouse after school, and he was always sensitive to the plight of the baby bunnies and mice who were terrorized by the greenhouse cat.
At one point, Bussotti discovered an injured mouse who had gotten a little too close to the cat. The teenager brought the mouse home, made a little habitat for it and nursed it back to health.
It was little acts of service like this that Krumenacker remembers instilling in her son.
“His final act was this enormous act of service for the greater good,” Krumenacker said.
Upon reading about this remarkably generous and kind young man, Rivotti broke down.
“I hit the ground and my wife said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I simply, without even reading the rest of the letter, handed it to her and she burst into tears, too. Because we knew at that exact moment: That’s the young boy I prayed for in my kitchen that one Saturday morning.”
With the knowledge that the donor family wanted to connect, Rivotti felt both anticipation and guilt.
“I was just over the moon that Joy and Dave [Eli’s parents] agreed to meet,” he said. “I was just mortified that I wouldn’t be worthy in their eyes, worthy of the tremendous gift that they gave.”
CORE (see page 3) reached out to Krumenacker saying that a recipient wanted to meet.
“Obviously, I jumped on that opportunity,” she said.
The two families met for the first time that April. “He [Rivotti] and I just immediately connected,” Krumenacker said.
Rivotti had known of Bussotti’s family, but never would he have guessed that the boy who saved his life had lived just down the road.
“One of the things I had always said about Eli was that whatever he did, whatever path he chose, it was going to be a path that made him happy, and he was going to stay relatively close to home,” Krumenacker said.
“And he did. Eli stayed close to home.”
Since their initial introduction through CORE, the donor and recipient families have stayed in touch, had dinners together and sat together at Bussotti’s high school graduation.
“We have really just tried to maintain a relationship because we consider ourselves family at this point. It’s so comforting knowing that he is so close,” Krumenacker said.
Becoming an organ donor was an option that Krumenacker and Rivotti both said made an enormous impact on their lives.
Rivotti’s transplant allowed him the opportunity to once again do activities with his family that he might have never been able to do again otherwise.
“It’s enabled me to go on walks with my wife again, enabled me to walk my eldest daughter down the aisle, enabled me to hunt and fish with my son, enabled me to take my youngest girl back to college at Seton Hill, enabled me to go down and play with my youngest grandson who’s just 14 months old,” he said.
Krumenacker found comfort in the connections she’s made with the people alive today because of her son.
“When you hug Chad Rivotti, you get a little piece of Eli…which is just a lovely thing,” said Stacie Conto, Bussotti’s godmother.
In addition to donating a kidney to Rivotti, Bussotti also was able to give six other strangers a new outlook on life with the gift of his other viable organs and various tissues.
“Eli, at the age of 17, saved six people’s lives. That’s a hero. That’s an incredible look into kindness,” Rivotti said.
“Eli’s legacy is kindness because of his donation,”Conto said. “What a positive impact and legacy to leave on the world.”
In line with Bussotti’s final act, his life is now honored through another form of donation. His family created the Live Like Eli Scholarship for graduating seniors from his hometown high school.
“In our family’s darkest time, there was this situation that was able to illuminate the room and illuminate our hearts and give us hope for the future,” Krumenacker said.