Heart recipient talks about transplant, donor
By Romi Herron For The Courier-News September 24, 2012 10:20PM
Dundee Township Rotary Club members listen to heart transplant recipient Judy Meikle Tuesday at Emmett's Ale House in West Dundee. Meikle told her story about the gift of a heart and the importance of organ donations. Meikle, 56, has a transplanted heart from an Army Ranger who died after fighting to save his comrades in Afghanistan. "He saved people when he was wounded and saved even more people when he died; how many people can say that?" she said. September 18, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 27, 2012 6:10AM
Inside Judy Meikle’s chest beats the heart of Cpl. Benjamin S. Kopp, a young U.S. Army Ranger who died from combat wounds suffered in Afghanistan. The Winnetka resident recipient spoke recently about her gratitude and the importance of organ donation at a meeting of the Dundee Township Rotary Club meeting at Emmett’s Ale House in West Dundee.
“I’m the recipient of a miracle,” said Meikle. “Jill (Stephenson, Kopp’s mother) wakes up every day knowing his heart is beating for me, his eyes are seeing for someone else, and his kidney and liver are the reason other people are living, too.”
A fairly active woman in her mid-50s, Meikle said she’d always been healthy, so a five-day stay in the hospital with no diagnosis was her first exposure to overnight care.
“When you’re in the hospital and you have tests, and you hear the technician go, ‘Uh-oh,’ you know something is wrong,” said Meikle, explaining the day she was then transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Evanston.
“They diagnosed me within hours because they have a transplant unit,” she said.
Her condition was genetic, a syndrome that causes the heart to remain partially open. A transplant was her only shot at survival, but an intolerance to Heparin delayed her eligibility as a transplant candidate. It was months before she was stabilized and a number on a list.
Finding the match
Each day, according to Meikle, 18 people die in the U.S. waiting on an organ transplant list. She spent three years hoping for a match — in size, blood type and tissue type. In the end, it was a personal connection that led to her promising outcome.
“It turns out when I needed an organ donation, (it happened because of a) person I turned on to donating blood,” said Meikle, who for years was a regular blood donor and recruited co-workers to join her.
One of those women alerted her when the late Kopp’s heart became available.
“I got the heart of an Army Ranger, and his buddies tell me I’m the only female Ranger biologically,” she said, joking that post-surgery she hasn’t had an urge to wear a 100-pound backpack and run 25 miles, as the Rangers do.
Born to save lives
Cpl. Kopp was raised in Minnesota, and his great-grandfather was a WWII Army veteran. After 9/11, Kopp decided he wanted to be in the Army, even though he was just 11 years old at the time.
After high school, he enlisted and became one of only 2 percent of those in special forces. He served two tours in Iraq; and before his third, he visited his mother for Mother’s Day.
“On July 10, he was leading six men, he was out in front, descending a hill, and he was caught by the Taliban and wounded immediately,” Meikle explained. “He was credited with shooting 10 Taliban that day and saving his unit.”
His fellow soldiers came in to get him and dragged him to safety. He was airlifted to Kabul for assessment, and later flown to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he died at age 21.
His leg wound, despite requiring surgery, had not been deemed life-threatening. But severe hemorrhaging during surgery led to a fatal cardiac arrest.
Kopp had indicated on his will that he wanted to donate his organs. Although a heart attack typically precludes a heart from being used in a transplant, an assessment of Kopp’s heart revealed a strong, viable organ, Meikle said.
“When they tested it, they told his mother, ‘Your son had the heart of a beast. It’s very viable,’ ” she said.
Now, three years after the procedure, Meikle has a good prognosis. She is required to test at Northwestern Memorial Hospital just once per year and will be on anti-rejection medication for the rest of her life. She stays in touch with Kopp’s mother and has even met his grandmother, Army buddies and a medic who transported him to his surgery. An advocate for organ donation who speaks frequently on awareness of the cause, she wears a button with Kopp’s photo, his name, 1988-2009, and the phrase, “Mission Complete.”
More about Cpl. Benjamin S. Kopp and organ donation is available at www.leadthewayfund.org.