WIOTA — There is a photo from the 2013 Gebhardt family Thanksgiving dinner, with Rudy Gebhardt on one side and his grandson Ethan Towne on the other, preparing to break a wishbone found in that day’s turkey.
Everyone knew what each of them silently hoped for, but no one really thought it would come true.
Before heading home, Rudy said goodbye to his children and grandchildren. He was in complete liver failure, and said he knew his body simply would not make it to Christmas.
“I pretty much said goodbye to everybody,” he said. “I knew I was going to die. Most people think they never want to die. But you can get so sick that you just want to go.”
That evening as Linda, his wife of more than 40 years, tucked him into the hospital bed set up at their country home outside of Wiota, he assured her he wouldn’t wake up. He insisted she write down what he wanted for his funeral arrangements, and although it was hard, she respected his wishes.
“I didn’t accept it,” Linda said. “It was terrible.”
Rudy struggled for years with ailments that were often confused with his diabetes. At age 63, he was finally diagnosed with A1A, antitrypsin deficiency (Alpha-1), a hereditary genetic disorder that leads to the development of liver disease.
But as Rudy felt the end was near, another family more than 300 miles away in South Range, Michigan, faced its own end. They were saying goodbye to their 19-year-old daughter and sister, Brittany Nicholas. She was on her way home from Northern Michigan University in Marquette to celebrate the holiday with family. Slushy roads caused her to lose control of her vehicle. She hit an oncoming car and eventually succumbed to brain injuries.
Her mother, Melissa Nicholas, said when it came time to decide whether to donate her daughter’s organs, she and Brittany’s father, three brothers and boyfriend made the call with the thought of Brittany in mind.
“Brittany was a giver,” Melissa said. “She liked doing things for people. We just figured that was something she would want to do.”
When Linda received the phone call that evening, her adrenaline was rushing. There was a liver available. She had four hours to get Rudy to UW Hospital. He had been on the transplant list less than two months, but his recent lab scores were so terrible, he moved up quickly.
Linda and their daughter, Tracy, stayed at the hospital for the duration of the 12-hour surgery, receiving updates on a pager from the 10-person medical team. In recovery, Rudy was quickly dubbed a “rock star” by nurses and doctors who were surprised at how quickly he was talking.
“I woke up and I was better,” Rudy said. “Instantly. I was slightly weak, but there was no nausea.”
Six hours later, he was in his own room. In 24 hours, he was walking alongside Ethan, who insisted on a front row seat to any possible procedures or blood draws.
“The grandchildren were the reason I got the transplant,” Rudy said. “I felt someone else might be more deserving than me.”
That Christmas became special, and photos of Rudy and his grandson depict smiles, silly poses with a stuffed liver among a backdrop of cards, flowers and gifts that filled their home.
“Brittany and her family are my heroes,” Rudy said. “When you’re a kid and you think of wanting to be a hero, you might not think of this.”
Rudy hopes the topic of organ donation will come up over the holidays. The couple encourages those wishing to donate to not only sign their driver’s license, but register online at www.donatelife.net and, most importantly, have a conversation with loved ones.
“You can sign your driver’s license, but if you don’t tell your family that you want to be a donor, you won’t be,” Rudy said. “You have to tell everyone. For some, that’s not a light decision.”
The Gebhardt couple served on the EMS for 30 years. Linda is the Lafayette County Coroner. During more than two decades as a registered nurse, Rudy cared for transplant patients.
“There is no doubt it saves people, but it also improves people’s lives,” Rudy said.
Although Rudy enjoys life, he still steers clear of infection, knowing the transplant has compromised his immune system. He will take anti-rejection medication forever.
Brittany Nicholas will always hold a special place in the hearts of the entire Gebhardt family. When they reached out to their donor’s family, they received a warm response.
They soon learned Brittany was studying to become a teacher, loved children and had three brothers. The honor student loved to sing and play several instruments, especially guitar, and had dreams of being on “American Idol.”
She was a 99 percent liver match to Rudy.
“I’ll never forget getting that response in the mail,” Rudy said. “I couldn’t even hear her name for years without breaking down.”
Eight of Brittany’s organs were donated, but the Gebhardt family has been Melissa’s only consistent contact. She said the way they keep her memory alive is special given the circumstances.
“It was hard at first, but now it’s just neat to know somebody is able to live their life. There was nothing to help her stay alive,” Melissa said of her daughter. “What her body could do for someone else was worth it.”
Linda and Rudy celebrate Brittany’s birthday. They keep a photograph of her in their home to always remember the girl who lost her life but was able to save another.
“Every day we think about Brittany,” Linda said.
The families haven’t yet met in person, but keep up through social media. That’s where Melissa loves to see the Gebhardts’ grandchildren living parallel lives to her daughter, encompassed by involvement, outgoing personalities and music.
“They’re keeping her memory alive even though they didn’t know her,” Melissa said.
Linda and Rudy also celebrate his “life birthday” by giving back. They give in several ways, and this year, they asked Brittany’s family for a suggestion. The Nicholas family proposed donating to the Gebhardt grandchildren’s music programs to represent their daughter’s big love.
The couple raised $900 to gift to the Parkside Elementary School and Monroe High School musical programs.
Rudy’s life now is intertwined with spending time with loved ones, especially his three grandchildren, and giving back. He is a hospice volunteer and also serves as a parish nurse.
“I’ve had five more years of life that I would not have had,” Rudy said. “The doctor told me when he took out my liver; I wouldn’t have seen Christmas.”