The young couple can be forgiven for feeling that Meghan Hickerson, a 14-year-old girl they never met, is at the root of everything good in their lives. Just three years ago they were both close to death. In fact, they had been desperately sick for much of their lives, she with Hodgkin's disease and the aftereffects of radiation therapy, he with a series of ailments that destroyed his liver. Nelson had even prepared himself to die. "I had been through a lot of pain," he says, "and wanted to get it over with."
And then Meghan, a pretty, vital teenager from Hartford, Ill., inadvertently intervened. On Jan. 14, 1995, she was on a church-sponsored weekend ski trip to Cascade Mountain near Portage, Wis., when she slid off the trail and struck her head on a water pipe used to make snow. A helicopter rushed her to the University of Wisconsin Children's Hospital in Madison, about 12 minutes away, but it was no use. Though at first reluctant, Meghan's parents agreed to donate her organs. There were five recipients. A 64-year-old farmer received her heart, one kidney went to a 33-year-old New Jersey woman, and the second kidney and Meghan's pancreas were transplanted into a 41-year-old Wisconsin man.
But for Gabrielson, who got new lungs, and Nelson, who woke from an eight-day coma to discover he had a healthy new liver, the donor organs were just the first of Meghan's gifts. Introduced three months later through Meghan's parents, the two went on to fall deeply in love. On the third anniversary of their transplant, Nelson presented Gabrielson with a "promise ring," pledging that they will marry someday. "I want to live my life with Kristin," he says.
Given the fateful role Meghan has played for them, it's no wonder she remains a presence in their daily lives. Gabrielson sometimes talks to her, asking Meghan to help the sick or injured if an ambulance races by. "Whenever something comes out of the blue with a positive ending," says Kristin, "I always think Meghan has something to do with it. It can be insignificant—if I see a herd of deer. Or it can be important, like a job interview."
The couple have come to believe that there are no accidents in the universe, or that if there are, the gift of life they received from Meghan isn't one of them. "If the tragedy had happened closer to [her] home [in Hartford]," says Gabrielson, "there is no reason that Meghan's organs would have been transplanted into Chris and me. And there is a good chance that neither of us would have made it. Chris and I believe there has to be a reason why we survived and finally came together."
By all accounts, Meghan Hickerson was an optimistic, outgoing youngster with a great sense of humor. She grew up in Hartford, outside St. Louis, where skies are often clouded with smoke from the oil refineries, but Meghan never seemed to notice. Coming home from choir practice, she would look up and say facetiously, "Isn't the pollution beautiful tonight!"
Meghan brimmed with life. She could talk all day and sometimes did, straggling in late to classes at East Alton-Wood River Community High School because she had so much to share with her friends or her half-brother Matt, now 21 and a student at Western Illinois University. She had her own inimitable style, sometimes wearing yellow soccer socks and shorts beneath her cheerleader's outfit. And she was a born performer who seemed to see the whole world as her stage. When her middle school eliminated prayers from her eighth-grade commencement ceremony, she persuaded school officials to let her sing the Lord's Prayer. Meghan wanted and expected to do everything in life. She hoped to be a singer or dancer at Disney World, for example, and when she visited the Florida theme park in 1994 with her mother, Connie, she flagged down the actors playing Disney characters and grilled them on how they got their jobs.
"Meghan knew no strangers," says Connie, 39. "She would talk to everyone, and 10 minutes after she met you, she would be your friend forever. That was her life. She was insatiably curious about the world." She was also capable of extraordinary acts of kindness. Frances Salic, a 73-year-old neighbor, remembers the day when 13-year-old Meghan and a friend arrived unexpectedly to help her celebrate her 70th birthday. They were carrying balloons on a stick, a cake they had baked and a box with a silver butterfly. "Meghan made me a party," says Salic, "and that is the way that child went through this life. She was a special angel. Her little candle didn't burn long, but oh, it shined brightly when it was burning."
The Hickersons say they were feeling lonely that Saturday when Meghan went skiing, and they had a dark premonition when the phone rang. It was their Methodist pastor saying there had been an accident, that Meghan had been hurt and they should call the University of Wisconsin Hospital. When Connie learned that her only child was on life support, she collapsed. "We're going to lose her," she cried. They drove all night, 357 miles, to be by Meghan's side.
The next afternoon, when Meghan's brain shut down, the doctors asked the Hickersons if they would consider donating their daughter's organs. "No, I won't, this is unacceptable!" Connie cried. But Jim, 52, quietly asked her how she would feel if Meghan were the one waiting for a transplant. Connie reconsidered, then climbed into her daughter's bed, took Meghan in her arms and rocked and sang to her for nine hours, until a team of nurses came for the girl.
Kristin Gabrielson had been released from University of Wisconsin Hospital that very morning, having waited in vain for six months for a donor. But that evening, she received word at her mother's house, 100 miles away in Woodstock, Ill., that her time had finally come. "I was very calm," she says. "I got dressed and waited for the ambulance. I wanted my family around me when I left, because I wasn't sure that I would see them again."
Gabrielson had grown up in Woodstock with four sisters and a brother in a loving family headed by their mother, Clara Hanson, who worked in a bathroom-fixtures store. (Their father, Tennes, died when Kristin was 9.) Gabrielson's health problems began in her junior year at Woodstock High, when she contracted mononucleosis and spent a week in the hospital. One day about 18 months later, while she was living in Chicago and attending Columbia College, her throat began to swell, and she thought the mono had returned. But an X-ray revealed a tumor—Hodgkin's disease. For six months she underwent chemotherapy. Then, in June 1987, she began radiation treatments that severely damaged her lungs. In April 1994, Gabrielson was forced to use an oxygen tank and had to give up her job as a police dispatcher. By the time she arrived at University Hospital for her transplant, said her surgeon, Dr. Robert Love, "her lungs were hardened like bricks."
In the hospital that same night, Nelson, who had slipped into a coma and was expected to die within 24 hours, received Meghan's liver. "We did not even have hope left," says his father, Jerry Nelson, 53. The surgeon, Dr. Munci Kalayoglu, says the transplant operation was "one of the most complicated I ever did." The surgery—and Nelson's life itself—was complicated by the fact that, at age 2½, he had drunk a caustic drain cleaner. Because of scar tissue, his esophagus had to be frequently dilated until he was 12, when a surgeon created a new esophagus using a section of Nelson's colon. Years later one of Nelson's medications combined with toxic dust from chemicals he inhaled while working in a rubber-boot factory to begin destroying his liver. "It is just miraculous [that he's alive]," says his father.
Gabrielson and Nelson did not meet in the hospital. In fact, she first saw him a month after he was released, when he went on Donahue to meet the Hickersons on a program about organ donation. She remembers feeling bad for the shy, bearded man. "Even now," she says, "I can't watch the show, because I know he is just quaking in his boots." It wasn't just being on TV that unnerved Nelson. He was having a hard time both physically and emotionally. While hospitalized he had developed serial infections, and he was troubled by survivor's guilt. "Out of the blue," says Nelson, "I got a liver. I almost felt Meghan had died for us. I didn't feel like I deserved it."
In April, Gabrielson went to Wisconsin Dells to meet the Hickersons at an organ-donation symposium. She brought them a present—a print of an angel ascending into heaven with a sleeping baby in her arms. "I was crying, my mom and my sisters were crying, and Jim and Connie were crying," says Gabrielson. Nelson was there too, but she was so overwhelmed by meeting the Hickersons that she barely noticed him. He noticed her, but it wasn't until a year later, on the night before the bowling party, that he called her from his place in Holmen. "I was giddy as a schoolgirl," admits Gabrielson. "But he made me laugh and feel good about myself for the first time in a long time. I fell in love with him on the phone that night."
She was so afraid of making a fool of herself at the bowling party that she hardly spoke to Nelson there. The next day, she says, "I was groaning out loud about what a knucklehead I had been." Connie Hickerson offered her some friendly advice. "Call him tonight," she said, "and let him know how nice it was to see him." It worked, and Nelson phoned her later that week to invite her to a movie, which was followed by a first, tentative kiss.
Soon Gabrielson began making regular trips to Wisconsin to visit Nelson and meet his father, Jerry, his mother, Kathy, 55, and his sister Dawn, 23. By September 1996, Gabrielson, now a medical secretary, and Nelson, a die cutter in a printing plant, moved into an apartment in Holmen, and just two weeks ago they bought a 16-by-80-foot trailer-style house. "We have made a commitment to each other," says Nelson. "We're getting on with our lives."
As are the Hickersons, who are adopting a baby girl from China. Though their new daughter won't arrive until this summer, they have already arranged a crib in Meghan's old room and hung more than 65 little outfits in the closet. "Losing a child is not like anything else," says Connie Hickerson. "I know some people who are very bitter and angry. But Meghan was so sympathetic to people. It would break her heart if she knew she was the cause of any grief or sorrow." She is certain Meghan would approve of her decision to adopt. "When I say my prayers at night, I just thank God for the blessing I had," she says. "I had Meghan for 14½ years. We were very lucky to have an angel."
GIOVANNA BREU in Hartford and Holmen
- Giovanna Breu.
KRISTIN GABRIELSON AND CHRIS Nelson are bickering playfully, teasing each other over who made the first move in their romance. The spark was kindled in April 1996 at a bowling party to raise funds for the organ-transplant program of the University of Wisconsin Hospital. Gabrielson, 29, who now lives with Nelson in Holmen, Wis., says she was the one who fanned the spark into a flame. "In something like this," she says, "Chris is painfully shy. A good deal of the time, I was the pursuer." Nelson, also 29, sweetly disagrees. "It was Meghan [who brought us together]," he says, stating what both know in their hearts to be true.