By Jessica Sly, Communications Specialist
Minnesota, October 2011
While enjoying an evening out with friends, Stephanie suffered cardiac arrest in October of 2011, after which a mechanical pump was implanted to keep her heart beating. She was put on the heart transplant list, and by May, she had moved the top. If she didn’t receive a heart, she’d be resigned to live with the pump for the rest of her days.
Michigan, September 2012
It was a beautiful fall day when 24-year-old Ben Schulenburg decided to take a motorcycle ride with a couple buddies after work. Just as they started heading home, a vehicle turned in front of him. He slid the bike to avoid a collision, but he hit the pavement and his head impacted the back tire. At the hospital, his parents, Art and Christine, learned that he would never wake up again.
Choosing the gift of life
With Ben’s body being sustained by life support, the doctors told the Schulenburgs about the option of donating Ben’s organs.
“He hadn’t even thought about (being an organ donor),” Christine said. “There was just no doubt in our minds that we would do this because it gave life.”
“It was kind of a no-brainer when we knew what the result was going to be,” Art added. “Ben was in excellent health, very physically fit. As far as we knew, there were no health problems at all, so why waste perfectly good organs when they could benefit other people?”
Art and Christine agreed to the organ donation and gave their son a final goodbye.
On Sept. 16, Ben’s heart beat for the last time in his chest before it was carefully removed and sent to Minnesota. Surgeons then placed it into Stephanie, where it began pumping new life.
Part of the healing process
After her transplant, Stephanie knew she wanted to reach out to her donor’s family, but she wasn’t quite ready. However, on Jan. 1, 2013, she got a call from LifeSource saying she had a letter from the family.
“What! I couldn’t believe it just because of all the holidays,” Stephanie said. The representative assured her she didn’t have to accept it right away, but Stephanie replied, “Nope, send it. I’m ready.”
Even though this was Art and Christine’s first time experiencing the holidays without their son, they decided it was the perfect time to reach out to the people who had received Ben’s organs.
“Yes, it was maybe very soon, but it just was the right timing,” Christine said. “We were still in that grieving process, but it was an opportunity to just be part of that healing process for us. The gift of life encouraged us.”
A couple weeks ago, Stephanie and the Schulenburgs had an opportunity to meet at the dedication of TCHC’s Garden of Hope on April 3. They chose to meet the day before so that they could soak in the moment.
“They called me and they said they were on their way. Of course the weather was horrible, so they were behind,” Stephanie said. “I was kind of anxious about getting their call.”
They decided to meet at the AmericInn where the Schulenburgs were staying. Art and Christine were sitting in the lobby when Stephanie and her husband, Jesse, arrived.
“I was emotional, but it was happy emotions,” Stephanie said. “Some people when they meet for the first time, it brings up all the emotions, and I think that it’s important that they had done their grieving and I had done my grieving in our ways so that we were at a good point in both of our lives in terms of acceptance.”
Christine echoed Stephanie’s sentiments. “When we first met Stephanie, I was expecting that it would be more emotional than it was,” she said. “Her hug said much more than words could say. It was a very special moment.”
Time was lost to the two couples as they chatted, shared pictures, and reminisced.
During the Garden of Hope dedication ceremony the next day, Ben was one of fifteen donors named and honored. Art and Christine said they were moved by the personal touch. They purchased a paver to be engraved with Ben’s name and added to the outside of the garden.
“Ben loved life,” Christine recalled. “He was always off doing something he loved. He was involved in sports, indoor soccer, CrossFit, and he loved the Lord.”
Six of Ben’s other life-saving or life-changing organs went to individuals in need. Including Stephanie, the Schulenburgs have made contact with four recipients.
“We found it very comforting and important that Stephanie was also a person of faith,” Christine said. “With the other donors, sharing our faith and the faith that Ben had was just the top priority. We just saw that God was using our tragedy to bring good into other people’s lives and that’s certainly part of our healing process and grieving process.”