Jill Stephenson never talked to her son, Ben Kopp, about whether he’d want to donate his organs when died.
It isn’t something a mother — particularly a single mother of one son — ever wants to think about, said Stephenson, of Rosemount, Minn. Even after her son enlisted in the Army and became a Ranger stationed in Afghanistan, they did not discuss his final wishes.
On July 10, 2009, 21-year-old Ben Kopp was hit by an IED in Afghanistan. He was transported to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he was declared brain dead eight days later.
Before he was deployed, Kopp had agreed to be an organ donor. That saved the life of Winnetka’s Judy Meikle.
Meikle, 59, was diagnosed in October 2008 with non-compaction cardiomyopathy — a disorder in which the heart muscle never properly develops.
She had lived with the congenital disease for her entire life, but didn’t know she had a heart condition until coming down with what doctors initially thought was pneumonia.
“As it turns out, pneumonia would have been easier to cure,” Meikle said.
She was put on the list to receive a new heart, and spent about nine weeks hospitalized for different infections before going home to wait for word of a donor.
Several months later, Stephenson and her parents were in Washington talking to the doctors about removing Ben from life support.
When she checked an online journal she had created after Kopp was injured, she saw a comment from a cousin who had a friend in Winnetka waiting for a heart transplant.
Early on July 20, 2009, Miekle received Kopp’s heart.
Since that day, Stephenson has become close to Meikle. And Meikle has gotten to know some of the Rangers who served with Kopp, including Winnetka native Ross Ritchell.
Ritchell, 23, a 2005 New Trier High School graduate, served with Kopp in their first deployment as Army Rangers. They were last stationed together in Spring 2008.
“My best friend, the best man in my wedding, was very good friends with Ben Kopp,” he said. “He was one of the people who companioned (Kopp) when he was buried in Arlington.”
He also found out from that friend that the woman who received Kopp’s heart lived in his hometown.
“Judy contacted me and we just met up about a year ago. She has become a very close friend, I would say,” he said. He spent a recent Friday evening at her house, barbecuing and hanging out.
“Three Army Rangers came to Chicago and met me a year ago while they were in a negotiation course in Rosemont,” Miekle said. “They said ‘We are going to meet one of our comrades’ heart recipients,’” Meikle said. They also wanted to see if she’d picked up any of Kopp’s traits.
It isn’t uncommon for transplant recipients to “pick up” traits from their donor, she said. Already, she’s developed a taste for green beans — something she would never eat before, but a vegetable Stephenson said her son loved.
She met up with the Rangers at Buddy Guy’s Legends, and they told her about the man who saved her life — and theirs in Afghanistan as well.
“They said, ‘You don’t play with your hair as much,’” Meikle laughed. They told her stories about Kopp. “He was just amazingly good looking and quite the ladies’ man. They told me very cute, funny stories, about how when they were talking to a woman, they never wanted Ben to walk up, the women would immediately transfer affection.”
His unit went back to Afghanistan in the spring, and she has sent the soldiers care packages and talks to them on the Internet late at night.
Meikle has become close to Stephenson. The two have talked to organ procurement and donation groups together, and Stephenson flew in from Minneapolis when a close friend of Meikle’s, who had been blogging about her illness and transplant, suddenly died. They’ve spent one Thanksgiving and other holidays together as well.
Getting to know Meikle “is the most physical and transparent way that I have been convinced that life goes on,” Ritchell said. “It is tragic that Ben died and died so young, but as a donor he helped someone else but stayed alive too in some way. The whole process has taught me that life has gone on in ways that we don’t expect.”
Benjamin Kopp Memorial Page on the Donate Life Memorial