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Every day a miracle: Heart recipient and donor family meet

Christine Schulenburg (right) listens to the heart that once belonged to her son, Benjamin. It's now a part of Stephanie Larson, a registered nurse at Tri-County Health Care. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal1 / 4
Isabelle (left) and Stephanie Larson meet with Christine and Arthur Schulenburg at Tri-County Health Care. Stephanie received a heart transplant from the Schulenburg's son in 2012. They met for the first time last week. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal2 / 4
The Kelderman family raises the Donate Life flag Tuesday, April 3, which will fly over the Garden of Hope to honor organ donors and recipients. Courtesy Tri-County Health Care3 / 4
James Swenson speaks at the Garden of Hope dedication Tuesday at Tri-County Health Care's Wesley Hospital. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal4 / 4

Arthur and Christine Schulenburg recall their son, Benjamin, as very active, fit and a bit of a risk taker.

"He lived life," Christine said.

One day he was with his mother preparing his deck on his new home so that he could welcome over friends to celebrate. But the next day, Sept. 13, 2012, celebrating ended abruptly when Benjamin crashed his motorcycle into another vehicle and suffered fatal injuries to his head.

At 24 years old, Ben's parents say he felt he had his whole life ahead of him. Becoming an organ donor was not on his radar. But when the decision had to be made, Christine said she and her husband were fully in support of making sure Ben's organs went to help others.

In all, seven people received life-saving or life-improving donations from Ben. One of those is Stephanie Larson, a registered nurse at Tri-County Health Care (TCHC) in Wadena.

Larson recalls living a life with no heart troubles until one night she was out with friends—luckily one being a registered nurse.

"I couldn't have had a better situation," Larson said. "She went into nurse mode real quick."

Larson collapsed and went into cardiac arrest in October 2011. The wife and mother of two was now with a heart that was failing her. She wasn't able to continue a normal life.

She was put on the transplant list not knowing how her need may be met. But it was just a year later that Ben's heart was delivered to the University of Minnesota, where Stephanie was able to once again feel the beat of his strong heart in her chest.

The Schulenburgs met Larson for the first time this week in Wadena and attended a special dedication for the TCHC Garden of Hope, a garden that is a place for donors, recipients and really anybody seeking some hope. Also as part of the dedication, was the Donate Life flag raising ceremony at the site of the garden, which is located outside of the Wesley Hospital lawn. The garden is open to the public. The centerpiece of the garden is a poem engraved in granite, written by former Wadena resident and heart transplant recipient Jim Swenson. He penned the poem about six months after receiving his transplant on Sept. 18, 2004. While the site was still surrounded in snow on Tuesday, April 3, once the temperatures increase, a circle of pavers will surround a weathered stone bench and blooming plants while the organ donation flag flies overhead. One by one, each paver will be engraved with a donor's name. The garden was landscaped by Youngbauer's Landscaping.

Garden dedication

More than 60 donor families, transplant recipients, Tri-County employees and members of the

public gathered for the presentation and flag raising.

TCHC President/CEO Joel Beiswenger opened the dedication reminding everyone the importance of organ donation.

"Nationwide there are 115,000 people around the country awaiting organ transplants," Beiswenger said. About 3,500 of those are in Minnesota, he added.

"I'm extremely proud to be a part of the great process, the project, the Garden of Hope, that not only celebrates the lives of our donors and recipients, but also becomes a beacon for others to help spur others to make that critical life donation," Beiswenger said.

Susan Gunderson, CEO of LifeSource, addressed attendees by commending the work that's been done at Tri-County and highlighting the promise of hope and healing that the Garden of Hope gives to local communities.

Tri-County Health Care partners with LifeSource to support local families at the end of life and offer the opportunity of organ and tissue donation.

Michael Berneck of the Minnesota Lions Vision Foundation spoke about the Lions eye bank and a new planned Lions Eye Institute at the University of Minnesota campus. Kim Aagard, TCHC CFO, stressed the important impact the Garden of Hope has on families affected by organ donation. James Swenson, who penned the garden's centerpiece poem, shared his journey of receiving a heart transplant.

At the conclusion of the program, the Darren and Kandi Kelderman family raised the Donate Life flag. It will fly over the Garden of Hope as part of Flags Across America, a national initiative designed to honor and celebrate the hundreds of thousands of donors and recipients.

"Our committee was honored to work on this project," said Lois Miller, organ/tissue donation project lead. "Our desire with this project is to honor those who have offered hope and life by organ and tissue donation. We also hope to inspire others to consider donation."

Miller listed the organizations and individuals who contributed to the creation of the Garden of Hope. They include the Deer Creek Lions, Wadena Lions, Wadena Rotary, the Browne Foundation and Wadena State Bank, Larry and Judy Spenst, Nellie Wegscheid, Trails 4 Transplants, James and Barbara Swenson, Lamson Trust of First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Family connection

Following the ceremony, families gathered in the hospital cafeteria to chat and remember those donors in their lives.

The Schulenburgs had a chance to meet with Larson's family. Christine commented how glad she was to see Stephanie was doing well as a healthy mother of two, Isabelle, 12 and Aiden, 15. Larson's daughter was along with to meet the donor family.

Larson expressed her gratitude that the family chose organ donation.

"My only option was a heart transplant or continue with the pump," Larson said. She and her family have been in the community for about 16 years. The Schulenburgs came in from north of Detroit to meet Larson and observe the ceremony.

Ben's heart served as a connection between the families that was clear in their conversation.

"We certainly feel the connection to Stephanie, she's part of the family," Christine said.

Christine listened to the beat of Ben's heart inside Larson on Tuesday, too. She noted that it wasn't something she felt she needed to do, but she felt it was a special moment to hear the heart beating that once beat inside her.

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