When the Rev. Jason Niemi got up to give the eulogy for his old college friend Brad Einck last month at United Lutheran Church in Red Wing, Minn., he was as conflicted as he had ever been.
The man he had helped through pledge week at Gustavus Adolphus College 20 years before had attempted suicide, then died later of a stroke. He was 42. It was a terrible tragedy for his family and friends.
If not for Einck’s death, however, it is unlikely that Niemi’s brother Ted would be alive today.
Einck had signed up to be an organ donor, something he and his wife, Kim, an emergency room nurse in Red Wing, had discussed many times. “Brad asked me if I had signed up to be a donor on my driver’s license shortly after we met,” said Kim Einck. “He was always concerned about giving back to people.”
“Brad was quite the guy,” she said. “He was not your typical candidate for someone who would commit suicide. He always made people happy, and he always had a smile on his face.”
Brad was a massage therapist. He played guitar and loved to sing karaoke, with a particular fondness for the Doors, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. He also was quick to do good deeds for others. That included organ donation.
He and Kim had discussed end-of-life matters, but the issue is a lot easier in the abstract than in reality.
“When it comes down to your husband, who is 42 and perfectly healthy, it’s a very difficult thing to decide,” Kim said. “When it became clear that the best we could hope for is to keep him alive in a vegetative state, well that was something we promised we would never do. So his vital organs were all good and his soul was already gone. We believe that. To me, it was a sign from Brad and God.”
Word that Brad was on life support spread among college friends, many of them from Tau Psi Omega Fraternity, nicknamed “the Reds.” It eventually reached Jason Niemi in California. Niemi said he would be honored to fly to Minnesota to preside over his old friend’s funeral.
As it became clearer that Brad would not survive, Kim began to make plans with LifeSource, an organ and tissue donor program in Rochester, to find potential recipients.
Some fraternity brothers knew that another member, Ted Niemi, a pastor like his brother, was on a waiting list for a liver. He didn’t have long to live. For Jason Niemi, the situation “was uncomfortable. I was going to do the sermon and, by the way, can I have his liver?”
The chances were a long shot that Brad’s liver would be a match for Ted, who has the rarest blood type. There also were several other variables to examine.
“Kim was being told it couldn’t be done in such a short time,” said Jason Niemi. “She insisted it would get done. [Kim’s family] was a wreck at the time. They were at their time of absolute crisis, yet they were working to make sure the transplant would happen.”
In order to do tests on both, doctors needed to keep Brad alive until the results came in, and they had to make sure Ted was healthy enough for surgery. The wait was excruciating.
“At that point, you just want it to be over,” said Kim. “They told me if he did die during the procedure, they would have to bring him back for it to be completed. I made them promise it would not cause him any pain. I told them to do whatever they had to do to get a liver to this man.”
They did. The operation went well and Ted was on his feet within days. He walked out of the hospital within the week.
In the end, Brad Einck’s organs and tissues benefited 60 people.
Jason Niemi was caught in a vortex of grief and joy, life and death, but he still had to address the gathering for Brad’s celebration of life.
“I want to say something as clearly as I can,” Niemi said. “Some of you don’t feel like celebrating today. And that is OK.” He went on to say it was “one of the most intense, bittersweet times of my life. I am the happiest I have ever been — at the same time that I am the saddest I have ever been. It is so weird.”
One of Brad’s friends, Perry Sekus, called the service “incredibly moving.”
“I was on absolute fumes,” said Niemi. “It wasn’t me writing.
“I’ve done a lot of funerals where you see the light shining out of the darkness,” he added. “But never anything this powerful.”
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