Terri Nielson and Janaya Kragenbring placed a hand on Bob Koehs’ chest. Inside, their daughter’s and sister’s lungs work to give Koehs life.Gift of life comforts in wake of tragedy
by Jim Boyle
Editor, Star News
The families Bob Koehs and the late Chelsea Nielson of Elk River share a strong and rare bond, one that was made possible by tragedy but has already shown tremendous healing powers.
The 21-year-old Nielson was taken from her family after a Sept. 19 motorcycle crash caused by a blown tire. Nielson, a passeneger on the motorcycle, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Hoffenkamp, were both airlifted in critical condition.
Hoffenkamp survived. Nielson did not.
She had made it clear her wish was to have her organs donated. Her lungs went to Koehs, a Marquette, Mich. man suffering from pulmonary fibrosis.
Her end was his new beginning.
Koehs, a teacher by trade who has a gift for writing poetry, has been moved to write poetry about his gift of life.
Breathing in and out of someone else’s lungs made him want to know more about this person.
here’s no guarantee that families will connect in situations such as this, but Koehs chose to make an effort. He included some poetry in an attempt to capture his gratefulness.
The words were soothing and begged a response. One was penned. He wrote back and the two families made and carried out plans to meet last month.
“Learning about the kind of person she was, that was very cool,” Koehs told the Star News. “Meeting the family made it all the more real.”
Koehs feels an overwhelming gratitude, an indebtedness that might have felt like a weight if he had not gotten to know about this woman who he has come to discover shares many similarities with him.
“It just feels like of all the possible donors I could have had, Chels picked me,” he said. “The similarities are so out there.”
Among the similarities was a passion for dancing, something that Koehs has resumed now that he has healthy lungs providing him enough air.
Nielson took dance lessons from a very young age, and her dancing skills went on to far exceed what any one teacher may have taught her.
She was also daring, and willing to try just about anything, according to her parents, Byron and Terri Nielson.
“Those lungs have jumped off a cliff in Alaska to paraglide, fished for salmon and halibut, gone scuba diving in Hawaii, and swum with dolphins in Florida,” they wrote in response to Koehs’ initial letter.
Byron, an over-the-road truck driver, took Chelsea and her sister, Janaya, and their mother on summer and Christmas vacations across the country. By the time of her death, she had been to all 50 states as well as Mexico and to Greece, Italy and France through the People to People program.
“She never let any obstacle get in her way,” her parents wrote.
This past year she got her first 25 straight in her summer trapshooting league.
The Nielsons described their 21-year-old daughter as having gorgeous red hair, blue eyes and a breathtaking smile. They say she was beautiful inside and out.
She was attending St. Catherine’s University for respiratory therapy.
“She would have loved helping you recover with each breath making you stronger,” they wrote.
Only 22 months separated Chelsea and Janaya. They were best of friends, and when Janaya got married Chelsea was her maid of honor.
Both Chelsea and Koehs were born in January, although the elder Koehs was born quite a few years earlier. He turned 63 on Jan. 19. Chelsea would have turned 22 on Jan. 29.
Both have been adventurous and shared a love of traveling.
“I too have traveled to all 50 states, and have played golf in all but six,” Koehs said. “I have kayacked in a glacier lake in Alaska where I watched a glacier calve, and swam with manatees near Sanibel Island in Florida. I am surprised that we did not cross paths.”
Koehs spent much of his childhood overseas. He attended kindergarten and first grade in Okinawa, Japan, and because his father was in the Army, he went to school in Germany as well.
His mother died when he was 12 years old. He is the oldest of five children. His father remarried twice and had a daughter with both his second and third wives.
“All of my brothers and sisters are still alive,” he wrote.
Koehs retired from the Navy after being medically discharged in 1969. He served on two ships, the USS Boxer and the USS Fulton. He made a cruise to Vietnam in 1966 on the Boxer and traveled to several other countries, including France, Italy and Greece.
He and his wife, Sue, who have been married more than a year, enjoyed a Caribbean cruise on their honeymoon. They spent their first anniversary in Marquette on Nov. 8, 2009, while he was recovering in Rochester, Minn. from the organ transplant.
“Hopefully we will celebrate our second anniversary somewhere other than the Mayo Clinic,” he wrote.
It was on a return trip to the Mayo Clinic for a post-operative check-up that Koehs got to meet the Nielson family. That was a big deal for Koehs.
“As a transplant recipient it was a matter of completing the cycle,” he said. “I wanted get to know the woman who paid the ultimate price to allow me to renew my own life.”
The best way to do that was to meet the family.
“I wanted to thank them for going through with Chels’ wishes,” he said. And put living faces with the living part of me that I have from her.”
Before parting ways again, they snapped many pictures and some placed their hands on Koehs’ chest. They felt his chest rise and fall with each breath.
It was therapeutic.
Koehs since returned to work, where he teaches children ages 12–17 who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. He plans to share his story and promote organ donation.
“I’m sure Chelsea will lend her spirit to my work,” he said.
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