One kidney, two lives, countless miracles

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2012 - 4:11 PM

There were instant benefits for Dan Heins after a kidney transplant saved his life. For Nancy Volk, the donor, life was also restored, but in a more subtle fashion.

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Nancy Volk and Dan Heins

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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The day Dan Heins received Nancy Volk's kidney, he said he shed 20 years. Before the transplant, he'd lost both legs to diabetes, had a heart attack and a stroke, and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. But in the recovery room after the kidney transplant, "I got my strength back, I got my life back," Heins recalled recently.

But what of Volk?

This was, after all, supposed to be the story of the kidney that saved one life and renewed another.

Volk knew Heins only casually when she made the decision in 2008 that would link them forever. She owned the Main Street Deli in Anoka and he was a regular customer, one of a group of seasoned gents who solved the world's crises over morning coffee.

Now, the Main Street Deli in Anoka is gone. Volk, 59, who was working two other jobs at the time, couldn't make ends meet and was forced to close up shop. She says she had to file for bankruptcy to avoid losing her home. Then she left that house -- temporarily -- and moved to Vernon Center, in central New York state, to care for a dying uncle and, after that, for her dying mother.

Now that she's back in Anoka, and is able to occasionally see the man who received her kidney, you have to wonder who was luckier, Heins or Volk?

Heins, 61, who relied on crutches for years before the transplant, walks up to four miles per day on his two new legs. He plays golf. He lost 20 pounds. He's not sure if he ever wants to retire from his insurance business.

"There's nothing I can't do," he said. "Retire? I'm just getting started."

Volk hasn't found the same fountain of youth. What she's found, instead, is peace.

'Wandering souls'

Volk left for Vernon Center, her hometown, knowing that she had poured her heart, soul and numerous soda-fountain drinks into the deli, where the conversation was as warm as the chicken tortilla soup.

"There are lots of people in this world who don't have anybody," Volk said at the time. "I'm happy to take in the wandering souls."

One of them was her insurance agent, Heins. Volk had known him for three years and saw how diabetes had ravaged his body and sucked away his energy. Ten years ago, Heins lost part of his right foot to the disease. Eighteen months before the transplant, his left leg was amputated below the knee. One of his kidneys had "shut down."

Volk, too, was at a crossroads. She had worked with special needs kids in Dayton for years, as a longtime paraprofessional with the Anoka-Hennepin School District. That often was the most satisfying of her three jobs. Her financial demands wouldn't quit. With three grown daughters, then in their 20s, she considered moving back to Vernon Center, where everything seems gray from October until May except the conversation of the local Syracuse University sports fans, who always bleed Orange.

But she had two unfulfilled dreams. She wanted to open a coffee shop/bookstore. And she wanted to donate a kidney. To Dan Heins.

A match

"Dan," she asked Heins, who was sipping coffee at the Main Street Deli. "Can I give you a kidney?"

"I nearly choked on my coffee," he recalled.

They visited the Mayo Clinic and learned they both had type O-negative blood. She refinanced her house to catch up on three mortgage payments. She took a job as a caregiver for adults with special needs. Steve Ohlsen, another deli regular, started "Nancy's Kidney Fund." She conferred with her daughters, not all of whom agreed with her decision.

On Sept. 18, 2008, she donated her kidney to Heins.

Heins began his new life. And so did she.

"It was really good for me to go back to Vernon Center," Volk said. "It was embarrassing for me to file for bankruptcy at 57. I felt like such a failure.

"In Vernon Center, I could relax."

Golden moment

Her Uncle Bill, a widower, wanted to die at home, she said. She wanted to make his final days meaningful. She planted a garden. She cut down a Christmas tree for him -- "the worst tree ever" -- and he loved it, she said.

He had a cat, Goldie, that had always slept with him until his wife died. From that moment on, Goldie was aloof, a typical cat. Until one night.

"The night Uncle Bill died, a Saturday night, we heard him say, 'Oh, Goldie,'" Volk recalled. "For the first time in three years, that cat had crawled into bed with him."

A month before Volk lost her uncle, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Volk's relationship with her mother had been strained for years. With her first granddaughter about to be born, Volk had every reason to return to Anoka.

She stayed in Vernon Center.

"It was the best six months I ever had with her," Volk said of the time she spent with her mother. "A month before she died, she said, 'I am ready.'

"She died on Christmas Eve. I'm so grateful I was able to be there."

She was ready to return to Anoka.

A part of her never left Minnesota, of course. She wore a Minnesota shirt at a Syracuse-Minnesota football game in Syracuse, which the Gophers won, in overtime, taking some of the sting out of the parking ticket she got during the game. And she talked periodically to Heins.

He'd see her daughters, now and then. He couldn't wait to see Volk.

They had coffee -- this time, in his office.

"He looked great, he looked wonderful," she said. "He was just so alive."

She's working again. She has a house full of antiques to sell and two new grandchildren she adores.

"It's great to have her back," Heins said recently. "How often in a lifetime do you meet someone like that, someone who rolls with all the punches in life?"

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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