It’s Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017.
Kathie Reisdorph and her family have gathered in Grand Island to celebrate Thanksgiving. Her 9-year-old-grandson Jack has an important task on his mind: writing thank-you letters.
In Omaha, Ron Fees celebrates at his sister Mary’s house. It’s not where he typically spends Thanksgiving, but he’s happy to be there. His family makes a big deal of him.
Kelly Feurhoff and her 3-year-old daughter Lexi travel from Omaha to Randolph. They’ll enjoy turkey, green bean casserole and cheesecake made by Kelly’s brother. And this time, they’ll spend the night.
Just three weeks earlier, things were much different for Kathie, Ron and Lexi. On Oct. 28, each would get a call — “the call” — that would forever change their lives.
A new heart was waiting for Kathie.
The once-active retired nurse had her first heart attack when she was 50. Seventeen years later, she had another and the previous treatments were no longer working. After a stay at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, doctors sent her home with a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to keep her heart pumping. Shortly thereafter, they added her name to the national transplant waiting list.
Lexi would receive a new kidney.
Born with congenital nephrotic syndrome, she had endured medications, blood transfusions, surgeries and frequent hospitalizations her entire life. Eventually, both of her kidneys were removed and she relied on dialysis to do their job. For 15 months, Kelly, a single mom, would administer the dialysis in their home three nights a week for eight hours at a time.
Battling cancer, Ron needed a new liver.
The husband, father and grandfather ran a lawn and irrigation business with his son. But working became nearly impossible as Ron endured chemotherapy to shrink the seven tumors on his liver while he waited for the call to come. The first call came on Oct. 25, but that day, his transplant was not to be. Four days later, another call came. After the transplant, Ron’s surgeon told him he “had a Cadillac in there.”
A “Cadillac,” because Ron’s new liver — and Kathie’s heart and Lexi’s kidney — would come from 13-year-old Ryan Post. A healthy Norris middle school student, Ryan died as a result of a car accident earlier that week. Her mom, Colleen Lovett, made the decision to donate Ryan’s organs and tissues.
“Without hesitation, I knew that if I could help some other family not have to bury their child, then I was going to do everything I could to do that,” said Colleen.
Two other recipients also benefited from Colleen’s decision. Ryan’s lungs went to a 16-year-old boy; another boy, 4 years old, received her other kidney.
Ryan, Colleen says, was friends with everyone. It didn’t matter if it was a student three years younger or the janitor of the school.
“If you were around her, you couldn’t help but have a smile on your face,” she said.
When she wasn’t in school, you’d find Ryan perfecting her back flips and toe touches in cheer club. She also loved camping, going to the lake and tubing.
Fast-forward to Thanksgiving Day: Kathie, grandson Jack and four other members of their family sat down together to express their gratitude to Ryan’s family, each writing their own letters.
“We said a prayer of thanks for the extraordinary gift of life from Ryan and her family,” Kathie penned.
“I feel very happy that Nana got a heart, but very sad for Ryan,” said her granddaughter Sydney.
“The decision you made ... was so selfless and with such great love for others,” Kathie’s son JT declared.
Around the same time, Ron also sent a letter. He, too, thanked Ryan’s family and told them he thought of them every day. If they were willing, he wanted to meet them.
“I was rather anxious to meet them,” he said. “I just wanted to say thank you in person.”
That day came the next April.
Colleen, one of her daughters and close family friends met Lexi, Ron and their families following Live On Nebraska’s annual Donate Life 5K. Colleen had made shirts for each of the recipients to wear to the event. Ryan Strong, Ryan Lives On, it said, with Ryan’s silhouette in a pink bow and angel wings.
Kathie met Colleen and family for the first time on what would have been Ryan’s 14th birthday. Ron and Lexi were there, too. The group released balloons and planted a tree at Blue Stem Lake in Ryan’s honor.
They all keep in touch regularly.
Colleen says the relationships she has built with Ryan’s recipients have been part of her healing.
“I’ve been comforted by them and their support,” she said. “They celebrate my successes and support me if I’m having a bad time. I love them just as if they were my own family.”
Live On Nebraska is dedicated to transforming lives through organ and tissue donation. They are a conduit for transplantation, partnering with hospitals in Nebraska and Pottawattamie County, Iowa, to facilitate the recovery of organs and tissues from those who choose to donate life. Learn more and register as a donor at LiveOnNebraska.org.