The embrace of the two organ transplant recipients, however, signifies more than most.
“We get as close as we can, for just a moment,” Veldman said recently at a gathering of family and staff at Spectrum Health. “So they can be close again.”
“They” refers to Veldman’s lungs and to Nelis’ heart.
‘Because we are brothers’
The words and expressions of both men convey wonder at the circumstances that led them to Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center on June 18, 2014, where unbeknownst to them or to each other’s families, they were both prepped to receive the gift of life.
Now, in addition to sharing gratitude, joy and a new lease on life, they also share a third person’s organs. Nelis carries the heart and Veldman the lungs of the same anonymous donor. They are brothers now, in a profound way that few can know or understand.
“(The organs) are separated,” Veldman said. “They worked as a team. We put them together, and we take care of them.”
“Every time I see him we have to go chest to chest,” Veldman added. “Because we are brothers and that’s how brothers treat each other, if they are smart anyhow.”
Two friends receiving a simultaneous organ donation from the same donor is a first for the five-year-old Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program as well as for most in the transplant community.
But battling the odds is nothing new for Veldman, 67, or Nelis, 60.
A two-decade battle
Nelis’s journey began in 1994, when he was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a progressive heart disease of unknown cause. With this disease, heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick, or rigid. He was 39 years old at the time, and the father of four young daughters.
Nelis said he initially was listed as a heart transplant candidate, but after six months of waiting his physicians noted such an improvement in his condition they took him off the transplant recipient list and told him to keep doing what he was doing.
“I was bound and determined to outswim it,” Nelis said. “I was a little more optimistic than the doctors and not quite ready for a transplant at 39.”
A college football player and track athlete, Nelis remained competitive in U.S. Masters swimming events for the next 20 years, but in 2013 he realized time was running out when he developed atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular, often rapid heart rate that can cause poor blood flow.
“I tried to outswim and outrace Father Time,” Nelis said. “I tried to stay physically strong and enhance my possibility of surviving, but in the back of their minds everyone with cardiomyopathy knows where they are going to end up.”
A World Grown Smaller
Veldman also has lived an active and even adventurous life. He is a former competitive runner and biker. He is also a bit of an adventurer and world traveler, who once spent several months working on the crew of a sailing vessel in Antarctica. He also survived a gunshot wound he received aboard his boat while docked in Milwaukee.
However, in 2006, as his cycling times grew slower and normal daily activities caused him to struggle for breath, Veldman sought medical help and was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, an inherited disorder that can cause lung and liver disease.
He found that while his two brothers were carriers of the gene mutation that causes the disorder, he was developing the full-blown symptoms of a disease that begins by causing shortness of breath and often leads to damage of the small air sacs of the lungs and ultimately to lung failure.
As the years passed, his world began to grow smaller.
“Before the transplant, my life was very small,” Veldman said. “It involved no steps up and being very careful about how far I went. I had to get people to shop for me, I had to watch how I slept, and everything depended on the parameter of being able to walk 15 feet.”
“I could see my mortality reflected in the eyes of my friends,” he added.
Every day is a blessing
Since receiving the gift of new lungs in June, Veldman sees a new look in the eyes of loved ones and his world has begun to expand once again. From 12 percent lung capacity prior to his transplant, he is back up to 96 percent.
But it was a small detail not long after his recovery that made him realize he would have another chance at the life he had thought was gone forever.
“I was talking to people on the phone and had my hand near my face, and there would be a blast of air going by when I talked,” Veldman said. “I hadn’t felt that in years. That was so profound to feel that air go by.”
Nowadays, Veldman enjoys “every day to the absolute fullest, even if it’s just sitting around in the greenhouse monkeying around with an orchid.”
“Before I couldn’t even get down to the greenhouse, much less do anything there,” Veldman said. “Now, every day is a blessing and is a gift that was given to me by a donor.”
One week after leaving the hospital in August 2014, Nelis was back in an environment where he feels very comfortable—the swimming pool. He keeps busy these days being a grandfather and living life to the fullest.
“You know the old saying—this is the first day of the rest of your life?” he asked. “Well, I kind of wake up that way every morning and say, ‘What can I accomplish today? Who can I talk to? Can I make a difference?’”
Throughout his entire recovery, he kept a sign on the door that sums up his feelings of gratitude, humility and sorrow about the transplant experience: “Only the Father knows the balance between grief and gratitude.”
Ask Nelis what he’d like to say to the donor’s family if given the chance, and a beatific smile crosses his face. He is slow to speak, but it is clear he has given the matter much thought. His words seem almost to take the form of a Zen Buddhist koan:
“I’d just say:
Come here … I want to give you a hug.
I want you to feel my chest moving as a result of the heart that is in there.
Put your ear to my rib cage.
Put your hand to my pulse.
Feel your loved one’s pulse.
Take as long as you want.”