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Families Treasure 'Gift Of Love'

By: Mary Pat Finn-Hoag ~ Norfolk Daily News ~

Lil Luallin of Indianola, Iowa, comforts LeAnn Nelson of Pierce during an emotional press conference in Norfolk on Saturday afternoon. Mrs. Luallin recieved a kidney from Mrs. Nelson's daughter, Holly following Holly's death in February 1998

Husband, wife express thanks for Pierce girl's kidney

How do you thank someone for the gift of life?

For an organ donor family from Pierce and a recipent family from Iowa who met for the first time over the weekend in Norfolk, feelings were expressed in the form of warm embraces, tears of both joy and sadness, and the sharing of precious memories.

"Not saying thank your or not communicating with the donor family was never an option for me," said Dave Luallin of Indianola, Iowa. "I tried to put myself in their shoes." Luallin's wife, received a new kidney in a successful transplant at a Des Moines hospital on Feb. 22, 1998. The donor was 15-year-old Holly Nelson of Pierce, who had died Feb. 20 from injuries suffered in a two-vehicle accident near jackson a week earlier.

Holly made the decision to become an organ and tissue donor only months before her death, said her parents, Jeff and LeAnn Nelson.

"One of the things that we always talked about in our home was organ and tissue donation," Mrs. Nelson said. One night, while Hollys was saying her prayers, Mrs. Nelson said her daughter told her that "she wanted to be an organ and tissue donor, that if anything ever happened to her that she wanted to make sure that I promised that she would be an organ and tissue donor so that people could live in her place if she couldn't. I didn't know that six, five months later that I would be keeping that promise to her."

Through tears, the Nelson and Luallin families shared their stories with reporters at a press conference in Norfolk on Saturday afternoon, less than a day after both families had met for the first time.

On hand for both occasions were Jeff and LeAnn Nelson; their daughters, Heather 17, and Haley, 10; Jeff's mother, Julie Nelson of Atlantic, Iowa; Dave and Lil Luallin and the youngest of their four children, Mary, 18 and Rachel, 16.

Jeff Nelson said, "I'm very thankful that they (Luallins) were willing to meet us and share their story with us, too, because their stroy is as difficult probably as ours. It means a lot to us."

Mrs. Luallin's medical problems date to September 1996 when she was diagnosed with acute and chronic interstitial nephritis, and end stage renal disease. Her kidneys were functioning at 10 perent or less.

A year later, Mrs. Luallin's name made the kidney transplant list at both Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines where she worked and at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. No relative was a close enough match for a living related donor transplant.

She was told that the wait for a cadaver kidney in the Midwest was about two years.

Mrs. Luallin said it was her hope that she could obtain the transplant before requiring dialysis treatments. As a nurse, Mrs. Luallin said, "I had worked with dialysis patients, and I never wanted to do that (myself)."

But, in early February 1998, Mrs. Luallin underwent her first dialysis treatment as a way to maintain her health in the event that a donor kidney would become available.

Mean While

15-year-old Holly Nelson was an active freshman at Pierce High School, where she was involved in band, volleyball, basketball, track and cross-country. She also had a boyfriend in Ohio whom she had met on the Internet.

On Feb. 13, 1998, Mrs. Nelson said Holly took one of the famiy's cars without permission to pick up her boyfriend at the Sioux City, Iowa, airport. En route back to Pierce, Holly accidentally drove into on coming traffic. Her car was almost hit head-on by a semi-truck pulling scrap metal, Mrs. Nelson said.

Holly's boyfriend suffered only minimal injuries to his knees. Holly, who had unfastened her seat belt only moments before the crash, sustained head and internal injuries and was hospitalized in critical condition in Sioux City.

After a brief upgrade in her condition, Holly's health deteriorated a week after the accident.

"She fought for seven long days in the hospital for her life," Mrs. Nelson said.

Her husband said the decison to donate Holly's organs "was the easiest decision we made" that week. "We were praying all week for Holly to come back to us, and we knew that if she wouldn't come back to us, we wanted another family to have the joy we were hoping for, for Holly, and we know that (the Luallins) will have that joy and that makes us very happy," he said.

Deb Perez, a donation services coordintor in Sioux City with the Iowa Donor Network, said she visited the Nelsons a week after the accident. "Their decison (to donate) was (already) made up, which made my job real easy." said Ms. Perez during the press conference Saturday.

At that point, Ms. Perez said Holly had been declared brain dead, which is legal death. Following final farewells by Nelson family members, Holly's kidneys and heart were removed, Ms. Perez said.

On Feb. 21

Mrs. Luallin went in for her scheduled dialysis treatment, she was told that she was second in line for a kidney that would be available yet that night. Several hours later, during the belated celebration of their 26th wedding anniversary, the Luallins received a phone call that the donor kidney was a match for Mrs. Luallin.

While preparing for surgery at Iowa Methodist, the Lullians said they learned that the donor kidney had come from a teen-age girl who had been in an automobile accident.

Only a short while after the surgery was completed, Luallin said that he broke down in tears and thought of the donor family "who had just had its heart ripped out. And I knew that I had to somehow thank this family for giving us this gift at such a time for them."

In mid-April, Luallin penned his first letter to the Nelson family. "It was a hard letter for me to write," he said.

"How do you thank someone for such a gift? What can you ever give back that can compare?"

The letter was forward by medical staff to the Nelsons. In June, the Luallins recieved a letter from Mre. Nelson.

"The love that poured from its pages was truly touching and humbling," Lualiiin said. "It left me in awe. it just blew me away when I found out that after giving us such a gift that she prayed for us every day too."

In the Letter

Mrs. Nelson told the Luallins about the Internet website she had created in Holly's memory about a month after her death. "Holly always wanted a homepage," Mrs. Nelson said.

"That was my therapy....whenever I'd get lonely, I'd feel sad," said Mrs. Nelson of the website. "I'd just wanted to feel like this is the closest way I could be with her. I put my heart in there." The website in Holly's memory contains dozens of pages. Features include many photos of Holly and family members, poems and messages in tribute to Holly and her favorite bible verses.

The site includes musical accompaniment, including Holly's favorite song, "My Heart Will Go On," from her favorite movie, "Titanic."

The website, which is located at, also includes a photo of the man in Virginia who received Holly's other kidney. (Holly's heart went to a man in Ohio.)

Before meeting in person, the Nelsons and the Luallins kept in regular contact by letters, phone calls and electronic mail. The communicatins, Mrs. Nelson said, aided the healing "of one part of my heart."

"To communicate to your donor or to your recipent family," she said, "helps you become stronger and stronger and stronger. So we would really encourage everybody, if they possibly can, no matter how much it hurts, to try to communicate the best they can with their recipent because there's a lot of healing there, even though it's really, really hard."

A Nurse For

A nurse for more than 20 years and involved in working with organ donor families the past seven years, Ms. Perez said, "this is the first time I've ever met (jointly) with a donor family and the recipent family. For me, too, this had been emotional."

The Nelsons said they plan to continue sharing Holly's legacy by promoting organ and tissue donation and awareness. The Luallins said they also plan to devote time telling their story, emphasizing the critical need for organ donors.

Over the weekend, the Nelsons said they planned to show the Luallins Holly's home town, attend a service at United Methodist Church in Pierce and visit Holly's grave site.

"The (Pierce) community has been a phenomenal support, and they still are to this day." Mrs. Nelson said.

Mrs. Luallin spent 24 days in the hospital following her tansplant surgery, returning to work as a treadmill technican full time last June.

She continues to show improvement in her kidny function.

Her husband, a postal employee, said it is now thought that an untreated strep infection may have lead to her kidney disease.

Mrs. Luallin said meeting the donor family "puts a final closure" on her healing process. She decribed the Nelsons' decision to donate Holly's organ as "A Gift Of Love."