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A lung and a prayer: Transplant recipient meets donor’s family

Jill Harris, Tim, Pat and Sharon Beard, (back) Charlie and Rhylan Kleczynski and Shannon Beard (front) hold a photo of Jill's son and Charlie and Rhylan's father Steve Kleczynski who was the organ donor for Pat Beard's lung replacement. (Bulletin photo by Katie Nelson)1 / 2
Pat Beard, Charlie and Rhylan Kleczynski each have a piece of Steve Kleczynski in them: Beard recieved Steve's left lung and Charlie and Rhylan are his two daughters. (Bulletin photo by Katie Nelson)2 / 2

A piece of Stephen “Stevie” Kleczynski resides in six people across the country: a heart in New Jersey, a pair of kidneys split between a little boy and a little girl, a liver in an older woman, a lung in a man, and the left lung in Cottage Grove resident Pat Beard’s chest.

After Kleczynski died on his 21st birthday in 2014, he continued to be that person his mother Jill Harris said “would do anything for anyone.”

Only hours after his death, his lung was transported to Minnesota to save Pat’s fading life.

“He had less than two hours to live when they gave him the lung,” his wife Sharon Beard said.

After Pat, a Vietnam Veteran and former state lawmaker, recovered from surgery and returned home, he wrote a letter to the family members of the stranger who had saved his life.

“The first one I wrote, I put a lot of stuff in there, but I mentioned I’d like to talk to you,” Pat said recently.

The organization responsible for connecting Pat with Steve’s lung works as an intermediary between families, receiving letters and redacting information if necessary. Eventually, Jill said it was OK to share her contact information, and Pat and Jill talked by phone.

“The first conversation we had, it was almost instantly like I felt Steve's presence,” she said. “There were a lot of tears.”

After that conversation, the two families decided they wanted to meet.

“I just want to put my head on your chest and listen to you breathe,” Jill had told Pat.

Pat and Sharon Beard, their son Tim and his daughter Shannon went to Michigan last February to visit Jill, as well as Steve’s two daughters, Charlie and Rhylan.

Jill and the Beards confessed to having nerves before meeting.  

“I almost felt guilty, you know, because it’s a hard thing to be thankful for the gift that my son gave, not just to Pat but to everybody,” Jill said. “But it’s very emotional, because how do we act around them? Do we act happy, do we act sad? They’re very happy and thankful that Steve was a good match for Pat, but then in the same sense, they don’t want to sound too happy because of the loss we’ve had.”

The Beard family had similar anxieties.

“You don’t know what to expect,” Sharon said. “You don’t know how they’ll react.”

Both families can agree now that the nerves were worth it.

“It’s all worked out for the good, and I’m very thankful,” Jill said.

“They’ve been part of our family ever since,” Sharon added.

Pat described it as “like having a whole new family.”

“And you know what, my family feels the same about him,” Jill said. “Whenever I talk to my mom she asks about Pat and says, ‘Tell him I love him,’ and she just thinks the world of Sharon too.”

For a week in August, Jill, Rhylan and Charlie visit Pat in Cottage Grove.

“Pat got sick and was back in the hospital for a while,” Jill said. “I told Tim to tell his dad that he needs to get better. We promised him that if he gets better and gets out of the hospital, me and the girls will come visit him at end of August and spend a week. He kept his end of the bargain and we kept ours.”

Pat improved and was excited to see his “new family.”

“He was a kid in a candy store the week before they came to visit,” Tim said as the families gathered last week at the Beard home.

Both families said the week went well.

“He took the girls to the Mall of America and did all the Minnesota things,” Tim said of his father.

“He spoiled them rotten,” Jill added. “He was very thankful that we got to come for the trip.”

Before leaving Minnesota, the two families made plans to see each other again.

“It’s going to be a yearly thing, and we’ll alternate years,” Jill said.

‘One little box’

When Steve first got his driver’s license, he checked the box to become an organ donor.

“How many 17-year-olds that you know that are just getting their license understand how important being an organ donor is?” Jill asked. “I’m very thankful that he did, because I know that all the families were very thankful and a piece of him lives on.”

Jill has met or spoken to almost all the individuals who received her son’s donated organs.

“I’ve talked to and been in contact with five of the families, and it is therapeutic,” she said. “I know that my son is all over. He’s in Minnesota, he’s in Ohio, he’s in Michigan, he’s in New Jersey — he’s everywhere.”

She’s spoken with the men with her son’s heart and right lung, and has met the little girl with Steve’s kidney and the woman with his liver. Though that woman has since died, Jill said “she lived for 20 more months than she would have.”

She cannot ignore the effect his decision had on others.

“He’s sure proof that organ donors save lives,” Pat said.

“He’s our hero,” Jill added.

Pat nodded. “He’s a hero to a lot of people.”

Both families encourage others to check the box to become an organ donor, now that it has changed their lives.

“It’s just one simple little box,” Tim said.