Giving the gift of life ; Heart recipient meets family of organ donor

At this moment, there are over 93,000 people in our country waiting for life-saving organ transplants. Despite the fears, anxieties, and questions about organ donation, it is this unselfish act that brought a new chance at life to an Ottertail ma...

At this moment, there are over 93,000 people in our country waiting for life-saving organ transplants.

Despite the fears, anxieties, and questions about organ donation, it is this unselfish act that brought a new chance at life to an Ottertail man and formed a unique friendship between two local couples.

On the evening of October 18, 2006, LeRoy Wegscheid was being prepared for heart surgery. After two false calls for a heart transplant that he desperately needed, he was praying that this time he would leave the hospital with a new heart pumping inside of his chest.

Just one night before, Greg and Debby Pouliot battled indescribable emotion as their 34-year-old son Jeff was declared brain dead. Four days earlier, Jeff went to bed with a headache, suffering a massive stroke in the night that he never woke up from.

However, even in the midst of their pain, Greg and Debby were able to find a strange sense of solace in the idea that their deceased son's organs could be used to save and improve the lives of other people.


"It was an easy decision for us because organ donation had been discussed in our family and we knew this was exactly what Jeff would want," explained Debby. One of Jeff's most remarkable gifts was his heart, a gift that 64-year-old LeRoy was just preparing to receive.

With a successfully surgery behind him and a gradual recovery, LeRoy adapted well to his new heart. As he and his wife Ruth reflected upon the incredible gift they had received from an unknown donor, they knew they had to find a tangible way to express their thanks.

"Within days of the transplant we knew we wanted to send the donor family a thank-you card," said Ruth Wegscheid. They sent their letter through LifeSource, a not-for-profit organization designated by the federal government to manage organ donation in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and portions of Western Wisconsin.

The organization is highly protective of family privacy, and the letter the Wegscheids sent to the Pouliots left out all information that could be used to identify the recipient of the heart. LifeSource mandates that letters between donor and recipient families do not include last names or geographically specific information about where an individual lives, beyond his or her state.

All that the Pouliots knew about the recipient of their son's heart was that he was a 64-year-old man from Minnesota. After over a year of corresponding through LifeSource, slowly sharing personal information, and eventually exchanging pictures by mail, the Pouliots decided they were ready to meet LeRoy and Ruth.

Greg and Debby live in Garfield, Minnesota, and decided to make the journey to the Ottertail area to visit LeRoy and Ruth at their home. The date they set was December 1, 2007, a little over a year after the transplant.

"It was so great to meet them," said LeRoy of their first meeting. "It made everything I went through in the last 18 months worth it."

For Greg and Debby, it was rewarding to see their son's heart giving life to another person. "It helped our grieving process so much," Greg said of the knowledge that their son was helping save and enhance the lives of countless others.


According to Debby, Jeff's organs and tissues can be used to help up to 40 different people. Jeff was able to donate his heart, corneas, kidneys, liver, pancreas, tissue, and bone. His lungs were sent to research facilities where they may be used to further lung research.

Debby found comfort in learning that one of Jeff's corneas was sent internationally. "I like the idea that he helped someone in another part of the world see," she said.

To date, of all the recipients benefiting from Jeff's organ and tissue donations, only LeRoy has contacted the Pouliots to express his gratitude.

Although most people are familiar with the process of donating major organs, there are several other body tissues that can be donated. For example, bone may be used to relieve pain and restore mobility to patients who suffer from bone damage or bone loss due to cancer or trauma.

Saphenous veins, found in the legs, may be used to replace damaged veins to prevent amputation. Another benefit of tissue donation is that tissue can be saved for up to five years from the time of recovery. It is the donor's and the donor family's choice to decide which, if any, organs or tissues they would like donated.

All individuals, from newborns to the elderly, can donate. However, persons under 18 years of age must have parent's or guardian's consent. At the time of death, medical suitability for donation is determined.

One popular misconception is that people who indicate their desire to donate organs or tissues may not receive the same quality of medical care. It is important to understand that the medical professionals who work to save an individual's life are not the same professionals involved with organ and tissue donation.

Donation does not disfigure the body, making it possible to still have an open casket funeral service. Additionally, the donor's family does not face any financial burdens, as all costs related to the donation of organs and tissue are paid by the recipient, usually through insurance.


For the Wegscheids, LeRoy's new heart has given them one more reason to be thankful this holiday season. For the Pouliots, the knowledge that someone's life was saved through their son's choice to donate gives them comfort during their grieving.

"We really believe that this has all been in God's hands and God's timing," concluded Ruth, expressing a sentiment she, her husband, and the Pouliots have come to share.

What To Read Next
Get Local