The Miraculous Power of One Human Heart
by Deb R. Brimer
From inventing the wheel to masterminding the computer generation, the most innovative minds of all time have progressively advanced society. Yet mortal man has yet to concoct a piece of machinery or device that can compete with the power of the human heart.
Despite “built to last” promises, most man-made technology isn’t engineered to operate non-stop for 75 years, but that’s precisely what the human heart does during an average lifetime. This mighty pumping machine beats 37,343,200 times a year and more than 2.5 billion times during a normal life span without ever pausing to rest.
Like any moving part, however, a heart may require repairs over time or – in severe cases – a replacement. But the demand for spare hearts dramatically exceeds the availability. Although a transplanted heart can add years to a heart patient’s life, most people who die take their healthy organs with them to the grave.
David Nicklas wasn’t one of them. He was only 20, in the early 1990s, when he and Mark Waggoner struck up a friendship at the U.S. Air Force Academy. As the two Texans were about to share a ride from the Academy to Texas, Mark recalls David asking to see his drivers license. David wasn’t verifying that Mark had a valid license. David – who was an advocate for organ donor awareness – wanted to see if Mark had signed the back of his license as an organ donor.
“He was an avid donor and wanted to make people aware of it back then,” Mark said.
Ironically, two years later – in October 1993 – 22 year-old David Nicklas suffered massive head injuries in a motorcycle crash in San Antonio. When his family made the daunting decision to remove him from life support, they knew David’s wishes about organ donation. But through an amazing turn of events that led up to David’s accident, the Nicklas family also knew who they wanted the heart recipient to be.
Six weeks before David’s accident, his grandfather – Lucky Bramlett – briefly met Rodney DeBaun through a mutual friend, Ken Johnson. At 36, Rodney had been a successful developer, athlete and family man who seemed to have it all. When Lucky met him, however, Rodney was on the waiting list for a heart transplant while fighting for his life.
“I had a virus called viral cardiomyopathy,” Rodney said. “[At first] I felt like I was catching the flu. I thought I’d be sick a couple of days, and that would be it.”
Rodney’s flu-like symptoms still lingered a month later. While he continued to compete in a basketball league, he knew something was wrong when he began struggling to run down the court.
“I went to my doctor because I thought I had a respiratory infection,” Rodney said. “He took a chest x-ray and determined that my heart had enlarged, so he sent me to a cardiologist.”
Rodney visited three different cardiologists, and they all agreed. Without a heart transplant, his life expectancy was about six months.
Although Rodney was placed on the waiting list for a donor heart, he had no guarantees that he could survive the waiting process. According to government statistics, about 3,000 people nationwide are on the waiting list for a heart transplant on any given day while only 2,000 donor hearts are available each year. So hundreds of people die annually while awaiting a heart transplant.
Rodney did get the call, but it didn’t come from the registry or his doctor. It came from Ken Johnson who told him about David Nicklas’ motorcycle accident.
“He said that the Nicklas family had made a request – when they take David off life support to donate David’s heart to me,” Rodney said. “At that time, that was the first time in history that a directed heart donation had ever been attempted.”
David Nicklas’ sister, Rebecca Nicklas Kelley, vividly recalls that painful day and why her family singled Rodney out as the recipient of David’s heart.
“The doctors told us that there was nothing they could do and asked if we wanted to donate David’s organs at his time of death,” Rebecca said. “Our family sat down together and discussed it. Our older brother said that he and Dave had talked about [organ donations] and that Dave said when he died, he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory – doing what he could to help his fellow man.”
As the Nicklas family prepared emotionally – best they could – to say goodbye to David the following day, doctors gave them overnight to decide the fate of his organs. But Lucky Bramlett had an awakening that night that made the decision for them.
“Granddaddy said that he woke up in the middle of the night, and it felt like somebody just grabbed him by the shirt and set him up. And he thought ‘Rodney.’ This was a man he met once in his life,” Rebecca said, “but he thought about Rodney.”
When Rodney learned of the Nicklas family’s impending donation, he immediately called his surgeon who warned him that a match was highly unlikely.
“The first words out of his mouth were ‘you guys aren’t going to match. It’s probably not going to work out,’ Rodney said. “But they did all the tests, and he called back and said ‘you guys matched 100 percent. I don’t have any way to explain it.’”
The David Nicklas Organ Donor Awareness Foundation
The Nicklas and DeBaun families matched perfectly as well. When the two families met for the first time – on Thanksgiving 1994 – Rodney quickly learned that he wasn’t just the recipient of David’s heart; he was also the recipient of David’s family.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I met the family that gave me life,” Rodney said. “But they just adopted our family and welcomed us into their family. The first thing that David’s mom said to me was that her biggest fear was people would forget David. That was the catalyst for starting the foundation. I told her we’d make sure that didn’t happen.”
In 1995, Rodney and his wife, Isibelle, founded the David Nicklas Organ Donor Awareness Foundation, which is a non-profit 501 (c) (3) corporation. David’s then 18-year old sister, Rebecca – who’s the executive director today – immediately grasped her brother’s passion for donor awareness and made the foundation her mission.
Although organ donor awareness foundations were nothing new, the Nicklas Foundation’s niche was initially narrowing the gap between transplant recipients and the nearest transplant hospital.
“Early on we saw there was a need for people who live out-of-state,” Rodney said. “Sometimes the nearest transplant hospital was 400, 500 or 1,000 miles away. Especially with heart or lung transplants that have a low shelf life, if you can’t guarantee the hospital that you can be within two hours of the hospital at any one time, they’re not going to put you on the transplant list.”
For the first five years, Rodney drew on his aviation interests and experience, which enabled the foundation to maintain two airplanes at the municipal airport in Arlington. A Turboprop 690 Commander was on standby 24/7 to fly organ recipients and their families to transplant hospitals free. The foundation used its classic Douglas DC-3, The Heart of America – Wings of Hope, to raise money and organ donor awareness at air shows.
In 2000, Rodney put his developer hat on and built The Landings of Carrier Parkway, 281-unit apartment complex in Grand Prairie, to permanently endow the foundation. By retaining a minimum of ten fully furnished units, the foundation provides a free apartment to out-of-town recipients and their families while awaiting transplants at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Baylor & Children’s Medical as well as to post-transplant patients. To date, between 80 and 90 recipients have lived at The Landings, and some lived there as long as two years.
“We generally spend over $100,000 a year providing housing to families,” Rodney said. “But just because someone gets on a transplant list doesn’t mean they’re going to get a transplant. We lose about 50 percent of everybody we come in contact with. But we’re in a pretty unique situation to understand all aspects of the experience. Rebecca understands the donor side, and I understand the recipient side.”
According to Rebecca, most foundation residents are awaiting lung transplants. While the apartments not only provide a home atmosphere, they likewise come equipped with emotional support from foundation staff and other transplant neighbors who are facing similar challenges.
“Less stress on the body, the better,” Rebecca said. “Being able to provide that is such a blessing. We meet so many wonderful people, and they’re so gracious. It makes everything so worthwhile.
Clearly David Nicklas had a big heart. In the 17 years since his death, his heart has beaten 634,834,400 times in Rodney DeBaun’s chest. And the hearts of the transplant recipients who have been helped by David’s namesake foundation have collectively beaten countless more times, too.
“Not only was I blessed with getting a transplant, there’s not many people who have been blessed with being able to be surrounded by the family of the person who gave them life on a daily basis,” Rodney DeBaun concluded. “Someday maybe I’ll get a chance to meet David. And if God comes to me and says, ‘I gave you 18 or 19 more years. What did you do with it?’ I’m going to tell him about the David Nicklas Organ Donor Awareness Foundation.
Editorial Note: Just one organ donor can save the lives of as many as eight people, and one tissue donor can enhance the lives of as many as 50 people. To become a donor and give the gift of life, go to www.donatelifetexas.org.
- Isibelle DeBaun, President
- Rodney DeBaun, Vice President
- Rebecca Nicklas-Kelley, Secretary/Treasurer
Board of Directors
- David C. Nicklas
- Rodney DeBaun
- Isibelle DeBaun
- Heath DeBaun
- Chase DeBaun
- Terry Hawkins
Become a Donor