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Burlington teenager meets family of his heart donor

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BURLINGTON, N.C. – It was an incredibly emotional day for a Burlington teenager and his family. He met the family of his heart donor.

Many in our community have supported 14-year-old Alj Jefferies and followed his journey battling heart disease. He was dying in the hospital when he received a successful heart transplant in March 2016.

He was first diagnosed with cardiomyopathy as an infant and eventually doctors said a transplant was his only hope.

Monday at Carolina Donor Services in Durham, Alj, his mom and brother met the Florida family who made the decision to give the gift of life four months ago, even as they were facing an unimaginable tragedy.

14-year-old Katelyn Zimmerman and her younger brother Dylan were riding a bike near their home in Inverness, Florida on March 9.

A drunk driver hit them both, Highway Patrol troopers reported at the time. Katelyn died that day. Dylan had four surgeries for his critical injuries over the next month but did not survive either.

Even in their despair, the Zimmerman family chose to donate their children's organs.

Katelyn's heart went to Alj in North Carolina, saving his life with surgery March 10.

"Thank you for the gift of being able to see more in life. Thank you for letting me have a second chance," Alj read in a letter he wrote to the Zimmermans. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for being my miracle."

Alj's mother Tina Turner shared a poem for them, too. "My gratitude can't be put into words. I know how much you sacrificed to give another a brand-new life."

Tina decided after her son's surgery not to listen to his new heartbeat until the donor family had done so first.

They shared that special moment together Monday.

Katelyn's father, Shawn Zimmerman, explained, "It put us at peace knowing that Katelyn's heart is still beating even though it's not in her."

Her grandmother Charlene said, amazingly, donating Katelyn's organs was not a hard decision because she was such a kind and giving girl. In fact, she said, just three hours before the deadly accident, Katelyn told her grandmother out of the blue that she wanted to be an organ donor.

Katelyn's twin sister Savannah was also devastated by her siblings' deaths. "To this day, I miss her waking me up and her speaking to me and having the moments we had together," she said.

Carolina Donor Services tells FOX8 more than 120,000 people nationally are waiting for a lifesaving transplant, more than 3,000 here in North Carolina.

To register to be an organ donor, sign up at: www.DonateLifeNC.org.

Tina hopes other people are encouraged to consider organ donation. "We want everyone to see this unity and this selfless thing they did for our family. That's love."

Alj concluded, "It's been a long journey, and we've got a new journey ahead of us."