From central New York to Houston, from Kankakee to Anoka, folks who have never met Nancy Volk or Dan Heins marvel at the story of the kidney that saved one life and renewed another.
"Never underestimate the power of an act so generous and maybe, in this case, so unexpected," said Dr. Mikel Prieto, the Mayo Clinic's living-donor authority and the surgeon who removed Volk's kidney in September so it could be transplanted into Heins.
Like the strangers who collectively donated thousands of dollars from Minnesota and beyond to help make the transplant a reality, Prieto was unaware of Volk's determination to donate a kidney to Heins, whom she knew only casually.
Forced by financial hardship to close her Main Street Deli in Anoka in September, facing possible foreclosure of her home and working three jobs to make ends meet, the twice-divorced mother of three grown daughters put her own life on hold in an effort to save Heins'.
For Heins -- who in recent years lost both legs to diabetes, had a heart attack and a stroke and has had quadruple bypass surgery -- Volk's kidney did more than change his life. It gave him life.
And what of Volk, who donated a kidney and exposed her heart?
"Dan is the epitome of optimism, but because he has my kidney, I think I'm going to make it, too," she said.
"In some ways, I'm the one who was saved by the transplant."
If you were in Anoka and wanted a taste of Minnesota Nice, there was the Main Street Deli. It opened in March 2007 and, from the beginning, the conversation was as warm as the chicken tortilla soup. Church ladies, old men, a group of recovering alcoholics who rode motorcycles. ... They all frequented Volk's deli.
"There are a lot of people in this world who don't have anybody," Volk said. "I'm happy to take in the wandering souls."
One of her customers was her insurance agent. Volk had known Dan Heins for three years, and saw how diabetes had ravaged his body and sucked away his energy.
"I look at diabetes as one of those diseases that doesn't necessarily kill you, but presents you with opportunities along the way," Heins said. "I've had my share."
Never obese, Heins, 57, said he began to feel the effects of Type 1 diabetes 20 years ago. A farm boy, he and his family raised prized Holsteins near Rochester. He worked for the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Albert Lea, then switched to the insurance business. When Rosemary, his wife of 29 years and a regional educator with the Extension Service, had a chance to move to the Twin Cities, they and their son, Jeff, now 26, settled in Andover.
Six years ago, Heins lost part of his right foot to the disease.Then, a year ago February, his left leg was amputated below the knee. One of his kidneys had "shut down," he said.
Still things to be done
Volk, too, was at a crossroads in her life. A longtime paraprofessional in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, she had worked with special-needs kids in Dayton for several years. That was often the most satisfying of three jobs she juggled to make ends meet. Work was steady, but so were her financial demands. With three daughters now in their 20s, she considered moving back to her hometown of Vernon Center in upstate New York.
But she had two unfulfilled dreams:
She wanted to open a coffee shop-bookstore. And she wanted to donate a kidney. Not to just anyone. To Dan Heins.
One day, while Heins was sipping coffee at a Main Street shop, Volk offered a proposition that would change their lives.
"Dan, can I give you a kidney?" she asked.
"I nearly choked on my cup of coffee," he recalled.
This was no spur-of-the-moment decision. Volk had discussed donating her kidney with her family. A sister told Volk she was being "selfish," and that her new deli should be her top priority, Volk said. Her daughters offered varied opinions. All asked, "Why not give a kidney to a family member?"
Heins wondered the same thing, and he asked again if she was serious.
First, a trip to the Mayo
They went to the Mayo Clinic, where they learned they both had type O-negative blood.
"Talk about beating the odds," Heins said.
Now they had to beat the clock.
An infection resulted in the amputation of the rest of Heins' right foot April 26. Meanwhile, Volk refinanced her house to catch up on three mortgage payments. In June, she took a job as a care-giver with Tender Loving Care in Anoka County, tending to adults who have special needs, often as a result of brain injuries.
She spent less and less time at the deli, where she struggled to make the rent.
In her place, Steve Ohlsen, one of the retirees who often frequented the deli, placed a small wicker box by the cash register. "Nancy's Kidney Fund," it read. The deli regulars knew the rest.
Volk's medical bills could be paid through her insurance. But the deli would close in mid-September, she decided quietly. She had little savings and could not work while recuperating from surgery.
She asked for no pity.
"We all grasp at something," Volk said. "Right now, Dan's health is the only miracle I need."
But there was another. The city of Anoka, a diverse community that has seen too many Main Street closings, rallied, as if on a mission.
In a matter of weeks, more than $1,000 had been placed in the wicker box. A bake sale, a silent auction and an October benefit raised thousands more.
Donations for Volk were mailed from Duluth; Menagha, Minn.; Madison, Wis.; Kankakee, Ill.; Houston and Knoxboro, N.Y. Thousands of dollars. And several hundreds of dollars came from Vernon Center.
Heins, with two new prosthetics, says he hasn't felt this healthy in 20 years. He threw away his blood-pressure pills.
"I got a thank-you card with a kidney bean in it," Volk said. "But I'm the one who's grateful."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419