Eagle woman gives gift of life
EAGLE, Colorado – Gloria Kugler shares many things in common with Mylissa Eckdahl.
Like Eckdahl, she is a Colorado resident in her 40s and she is the mother of two girls. More specifically, she knows what it is like when a sudden incident changes your entire life.
For Eckdahl, an Eagle resident who died April 17, that sudden change happened eight years ago when she was involved in a car accident that left her quadriplegic. For Kugler, four years ago a sudden infection nearly claimed her life. While she was able to recover from the sepsis, she lost her kidney function. For the past four years, she has dealt with vastly diminished energy and her life has depended upon dialysis three times a week.
Today, the two women share their strongest link: a functioning kidney. Kugler has a new lease on life because Eckdahl was an organ donor.
Mylissa Eckdahl was a detail-oriented person. Friends and family speak of her amazing memory. What she didn’t remember, she recorded in an expansive Yahoo account. So it isn’t surprising that Eckdahl had discussed her plans for organ donation.
“She was an organ donor even before her accident,” says her mother Donna Nemanic. “She was a longtime believer in it.”
But even knowing her daughter’s expressed wishes, Nemanic notes that the decision to donate her organs was a difficult one, ripe with irony.
Back in January 2001 when Eckdahl’s accident occurred, weather conditions hampered efforts to bring her to Denver. As Nemanic notes, in cases involving spinal injuries, minutes count and it was agonizing to wait for the weather to clear.
In April of this year, a heavy snowstorm threatened to prevent Eckdahl’s organs from being transplanted. On April 17, in the middle of the blizzard, Dr. Paul Campsen from University of Colorado Hospital climbed in a Hummer with Rick Adams of the Colorado Travel Rescue Team. Members of the Colorado State Patrol led the way through the snow so the team could reach Vail to obtain Eckdahl’s donated liver and kidneys.
Those two trips through the snow have a special poignancy for Nemanic, tying two dark moments together.
In April, Eckdahl’s family members were coping with the sudden heart attack that left Mylissa without brain function. They faced myriad decisions that followed as part of the organ donation process. For instance, they were asked to fill out an extensive questionnaire about her lifestyle. “There were all these things going on and I have to say that, in the process, you have to be a pretty strong person,” Nemanic says.
She noted the Vail Valley Medical Center staff was very kind through the difficult times, but the weather issues and medical concerns surrounding the organ donations were sometimes daunting.
“I was sustained by the fact we had talked about it and that it was what she wanted,” Nemanic says.
As they struggle to fulfill Eckdahl’s wishes, the family found strength in her example. “I wanted to be equal to the strength she had in her life,” Nemanic says.
During the week before her death, Nemanic noted that Eckdahl had ventured out to a track meet to watch her daughters compete. Under any circumstances, attending track contests can be daunting because they are subject to quickly changing weather conditions and spread out schedules.
For Eckdahl, attendance was further complicated by changing surface conditions that made wheelchair access difficult. During that particular meet, rainfall caused Eckdahl’s glasses to mist and she had to stop a stranger and ask for help. When she considers all that her daughter had to do to simply attend that event, Nemanic notes that a less strong person would have understandably chosen to stay home.
“She was very brave. Imagine having to go through all that,” she says.
Nemanic believes that her daughter’s decision to be an organ donor speaks volumes about her character.
“Mylissa was able to teach a lot of people about living,” says her stepfather Gerald Nemanic. The family believes that her final wishes can teach people a bit about organ donation.
“People may think they are too old or unhealthy to be an organ donor,” says Jennifer Moe of the Donor Alliance, a nonprofit organ procurement organization that operates in all 50 states. “Don’t rule yourself out. Mylissa is a wonderful example of this.”
Eckdahl’s decision to donate organs also demonstrated her desire to give back to the community and state that had given much to her. Gloria Kugler remembers Eckdahl and her family every day as a result.
“My heart breaks for the family, ” Kugler says. “We definitely pray for them every day.”
When she lost her kidney function four years ago, Kugler found herself living a very diminished lifestyle. She was tied to three-time-a-week dialysis and vastly reduced energy levels. It was impossible for her to work outside of the home and simple housekeeping chores were often too much for her.
Getting away was equally difficult because she was tied to her treatment schedule. She’s been on a kidney donation waiting list for four years.
Like Eckdahl’s family in Vail, the April snowstorm was agonizing for the Kugler family. The hospital called to tell her a kidney might be available, but the recovery team was held up by the weather.
“They called me about 11 p.m. and it was a night of ‘Is it going to happen or is it not going to happen?'” Kugler says. At 4 a.m., she learned the team had been successful.
Two months after her transplant, Kugler has her life back. Earlier this month, she and her husband celebrated their 25th anniversary by renewing their wedding vows. With their two daughters ages 19 and 21, the couple is planning a vacation this summer.
“I have a whole new lease on life and such an appreciation for it,” she says. “You learn a lot when you don’t have your health.”
She also notes that she understands the difficult decision the Eckdahl family made. Kugler’s brother died a few years ago, and he was an organ donor. She also experienced the sadness and difficulty of deciding to proceed with a donation request.
“To the family, I want to say how much I appreciate their selfless gesture of organ donation,” says Kugler. “It has put my life back on track.”
Snow usually comes and goes in this part of the state. A forecasted storm is expected to stick around for a while. Forecasters are calling for snow to persist throughout the weekend in the high country, with a prospect of a couple of feet of powder by the time the storm starts to diminish on Monday.