Soldier, young uncle both gave lifesaving organs
By Nick Ferraro | Twin Cities Pioneer Press
Jill Stephenson lost her son to war 18 months ago, but she is keeping his legacy alive.
Stephenson's son, Cpl. Benjamin Kopp, a 21-year-old Army Ranger from Rosemount, died of injuries he suffered in Afghanistan. After he was taken off life-support, his heart was transplanted into an Illinois woman.
Kopp's ultimate sacrifice has put his mother at the forefront of advocacy for organ donation — a role she cherishes. Stephenson's work has taken her across the country to speak about the importance of being an organ donor.
"It really helps me with healing, because I'm helping other people," said Stephenson, of Rosemount. "It's something that I never could have foreseen happening in my life."
On New Year's Day, Stephenson and her mother, Mary Barnes, will be in Pasadena, Calif., for the Rose Parade. Kopp and Stephenson's brother, J.T. Burud, who died at age 11, are among 60 organ donors who will be honored on the Donate Life Float.
Earlier this month, Stephenson and Barnes were in Pasadena to help create "floragraphs" of Kopp and Burud to be featured on the float.
"I am just touched, and so is my mother, to have our sons being recognized together," Stephenson said.
Kopp grew up knowing the importance of organ donation. On July 15, 1982, Burud was hit by a car while trying to cross Minnesota 100 in St. Louis Park. Ten days later, the boy's family decided to take him off life support and donate his organs.
"A few months went by, and we got a letter from the family of the recipient who received my brother's kidney," recalled Stephenson, who was 15 at the time. "I remember the feeling it gave us to know that someone else was living because of this."
Nearly 27 years later — July 10, 2009 — Kopp's Ranger unit attacked a Taliban safe haven and was involved in a firefight that lasted hours, killing several Taliban. Kopp saved six of his fellow Rangers but was shot in the knee. With an artery severed, his blood pressure plummeted, damaging his brain. He died eight days after being taken off life support.
But his passing opened the door for a new kind of heroism.
Two days later, his heart was implanted into Judy Meikle, a 57-year-old Winnetka, Ill., resident who was dying of a congenital heart defect and was on the transplant waiting list. Meikle also happened to be a friend of Stephenson's first cousin, who lives in the Chicago area.
Stephenson communicates often with Meikle. For Thanksgiving, Stephenson went to Illinois to have Thanksgiving dinner with her.
"She's doing great," Stephenson said. "She has been welcomed as a part of my family down there."
Kopp's tissue, bone and organs, including kidneys, liver and pancreas, helped up to 75 lives, Stephenson said.
"And that's just the physical people you can account for," she said. "It doesn't include the people whose lives Ben affected and his story affected and who have now become organ donors. They'll save lives going forward."
More than 28,000 lives are saved each year in the U.S. through organ donation, giving hope to the more than 108,000 people awaiting a life-savingtransplant, according to Donate Life America.
It is rare for two people from one family to successfully donate organs, said Rebecca Ousley, a spokeswoman for St. Paul-based LifeSource, which is co-sponsoring the trip to Pasadena.
"It's an incredibly rare thing for a person to be able to be an organ donor because of the manner in which a person has to die," Ousley said. "Very few of us have the precious opportunity to be an organ donor, so I do think it is pretty incredible that two people in one family had that same opportunity and were able to save lives."
Stephenson called her brother's story of organ donation and that of her son "a beautiful example of something coming full circle."
Earlier this month, she returned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for the first time since her son was taken off life support. Dr. Edward Falta, chief of the hospital's organ transplant service, asked Stephenson to share her story with physicians and nursing staff.
"That was really special," she said. "There were definitely some faces I recognized."
She said the magnitude of what she accomplished did not hit her until afterward.
"I try and keep my shoulders back and my chest out and chin up while I'm somewhere speaking," she said. "I want to be able to articulate and share my story with these people, but it's something that hits you after you have time to decompress a little bit."
This year, Stephenson also would like to provide support to family members whose loved ones were killed in action. She said her work could include visiting with a family and maybe developing a long-term relationship with them.
"I had people who did that for me," she said. "So I know it's helpful in any traumatic situation to speak to other people who understand exactly what you're going through."