Transplant recipient celebrates gift of life
By Romi Herron For The Courier-News January 6, 2013 6:30PM
Heart transplant recipient Judy Meikle tells her story to Dundee Township Rotary Club members Tuesday at Emmett's Ale House in West Dundee. September 18, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 8, 2013 6:01AM
This is another in a series of stories on people and events that shaped our communities in 2012.
Since Judy Meikle received the heart of a U.S. Army Ranger in a 2009 transplant that saved her life, she’s made it her No. 1 goal to get the word out about organ donation.
A Winnetka resident, Meikle spoke on the topic with Dundee Township and St. Charles Rotary Clubs last fall, and she writes a blog about her experience. As she looks back on 2012, the 60-year-old said her donor and hero, Cpl. Benjamin S. Kopp, would have been 25 this year.
“Part of Ben will live on,” said Meikle, who visited his gravesite in early December at Arlington National Cemetery. “And for Jill, his mother, his heart is still beating in me every day ... . I can’t think of a better thing than to have your loved one literally save a life.”
Kopp, a Minnesota native who is credited with shooting 12 Taliban and saving six U.S. soldiers on July 10, 2009, had indicated on his will that he wanted to donate his organs.
He was on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan at the time, leading a machine gun team against heavily armed combatants. He placed himself in close range of enemy fire and began shooting at multiple enemies to allow for the recovery of a reconnaissance team that had been unable to maneuver.
During the firefight Kopp was struck in the lower leg by a bullet from an enemy sniper. But he refused to give up until he was sure the six men were able to maneuver to safety. At this time his fellow Rangers moved in, administered first aid and helped Kopp get back to their base camp and on his way to the hospital.
While recovering from surgery to his leg, Kopp suffered a cardiac arrest. He was immediately revived and his vitals were stabilized, but he never regained consciousness and died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on July 18, 2009. He was declared brain dead and per his wishes, all of his major organs, bone, skin and tissue were donated.
His heart was tested as a viable organ and is the reason Meikle is alive, she said.
“Inside me beats the heart of an Army Ranger,” said Meikle, who became close friends with Jill Stephenson, Kopp’s mother.
On both women’s Facebook pages, a photo of a Cpl. Benjamin Kopp Christmas ornament is posted.
Meikle said the star-shaped decoration is a perfect reminder of the greatest gift she’s ever received. In July, she’ll take part in the Ben Kopp Memorial Ride, a fundraiser that benefits veterans.
During her visit to Kopp’s gravesite, Meikle said, she told the fallen soldier about her year and what she’s doing with her life. Spending time with her two dogs, visiting friends in the hospital, and working part time keep her busy, she said. For the first time since her childhood, she traveled to New York City to see the Rockettes holiday show this year.
But the highlight of her year, she emphasized, was connecting with her hero at the cemetery.
“I sat and had a conversation with him,” she said. “I hadn’t been there since 9/11 of the year before. It was a rainy day, and I told him everything is going OK with Judy’s ticker, thanks to him.”
Meikle says her health is “great” and that she will take an immune suppressant for life to prevent her body from rejecting the transplant organ.
Each day in the United States, 18 people die waiting for organs, she reiterated.
“That just should not happen ... there is no excuse,” Meikle said. “It is so simple. You can (become an organ donor) online. It’s free. It’s the best gift you can give.”
More about Benjamin Kopp and organ donation is available at www.leadthewayfund.org.