Bittersweet day celebrates organ donors

When Melissa Gieselman’s parents arrived at Salina Regional Hospital on July 24, 2010, and learned she had died of a brain aneurysm, they knew what they needed to do.

It’s what their daughter had wanted.

This past weekend, more than two years after her death, Melissa’s mother, Karen Gieselman of Holyrood, Kan., and brother, Kenny Gieselman of Salina, met for the first time the people whose lives were saved because of Melissa’s gift. Melissa’s father, Mark Gieselman, died last year.

Three recipients of Melissa’s organs attended Saturday’s Celebration of Heroes, an annual gathering to honor organ and tissue donors. The event at Leawood United Methodist Church was sponsored by the Midwest Transplant Network, a nonprofit organ procurement organization.

“It is so nice to see that some good came from Melissa’s death,” Karen Gieselman said through tears during a meeting with two of the recipients before the ceremony. “It was her desire to be a donor, and I’m glad we were able to follow her wishes.”

Janet Handal of New York and Carmen Reinke of Johnson County thanked the family for the gift of Melissa Gieselman’s kidneys.

“The waiting list in New York is five to eight years,” said Handal, who had kidney disease. “So I feel this saved my life, and it gave me quality of life. It is so meaningful to meet them.”

Reinke, who was suffering from an aggressive kidney disease and undergoing dialysis, said that although the new kidney was “a perfectly good organ,” she developed complications after the transplant and had to have it removed. She is still on dialysis and is on a waiting list for another kidney. And she remains forever grateful to Melissa’s family.

“I share my story every day,” she said. “There’s a lot more awareness now than there used to be. And my friends, watching what I have gone through, have signed up to be donors.”

Everyone acknowledged that while Saturday’s meeting was a bit awkward, it was well worth it.

“While I was driving here, I called a colleague who had a heart transplant and told him I was five minutes away from meeting my donor’s family,” Handal said. “And he said, ‘It’s going to be wonderful.’ And it was.

“It’s a little uncomfortable, but when I think about their family and what they’ve done and the gift that’s my life…” she said, her voice trailing off. “It truly is the gift of life.”

Kenny Gieselman, who was seven years old than his sister, said the day was bittersweet.

“I was concerned, because this really brings up a lot of emotions,” he said. “But having the recipients reach out to us really personalizes this, and it has more meaning this way.”

Melissa Gieselman, 32, lived in Lorraine, Kan., and was a negotiator on the Special Operations and Response Team at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Ellsworth, her family said.

“She loved her job,” Karen Gieselman said. “She was a very caring and loving person. She always tried to make people feel better. She would be so pleased at what her gifts have done.”

About 100 people attended the ceremony, during which some donors’ families spoke about their loved ones and presented blocks they had made that will become part of a large quilt honoring them.

Karen Stroble brought a quilt block in memory of her 34-year-old son, Craig, who died in February. She told those attending that she had heard from his organ recipient.

“He assures me he is going to take care of his liver the rest of his life,” she said. “Organ transplants save lives that wouldn’t have otherwise been saved.”

Mark Reintjes, medical director of the Midwest Transplant Network, said the decision to donate an organ is “an act of courageous love over fear.”

“Because of your loved one’s gift, 20 or 30 people’s lives intersected with that gift,” he said, referring to doctors, nurses, chaplains, emergency medical technicians and funeral home directors. “They went home a little stronger … knowing that was the right thing to do. They went home knowing that love wins.”

The Gieselmans sat with Handal and Reinke through the emotional service.

After the ceremony, a man slowly approached the Gieselmans and introduced himself as the one who had received Melissa’s liver. They had corresponded but never met.

“This is part of the circle,” said Richard DeLozier of Kansas City. “I’m here to show appreciation and honor to the family for their gift.”

Like the others, DeLozier admitted it was a difficult meeting.

“I wasn’t sure my car was going to make it here,” he said. “I’m in a great healthy place right now and was concerned about my celebration of life while the other family is still in mourning. But they were just wonderful, and it was an honor to meet them.”