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Through the Storm: Nebraskans plowed path through blizzard for heart transplant

The clock ticking, and every road closed, a man living with a mechanical pump in his chest heard from his doctors.

They had a heart.

But nature’s onslaught, in the form of a fierce blizzard meant it could go to someone else.

“Yeah, there was a serious concern he wouldn’t be able to get here,” Dr. John Um of Nebraska Medicine said at the time.

Thanks to volunteer firefighters, plow drivers, and others who cleared the way -- Dan and Peggy Griffin of Elba made it through the blizzard.

But life’s storms weren’t over.

That was especially true for Peggy. She was alone in the hospital because family couldn’t make it in the storm, anxious for word as the surgery continued for hours.

Peggy said, “The surgeon came out and told me there was a hiccup. They were getting ready to take him to ICU and the new heart quit on him, and they had to do CPR and get it going again and he says well, we got him going, but he's not out of the woods yet and I can tell you right now, it doesn't look good but we're doing everything we can.”

Slowly over a few days, Dan awoke from his fog to a sensation we all know.

But it was something he hadn’t noticed in the 18 months a device that kept his heart going.

“I could feel the heartbeat,” he said. “And I didn't have a pulse before that because I was on an LVAD, an electric heart.”

After a three week stay, doctors sent Dan home from Nebraska Medicine.

A year later, he celebrates what he calls his other birthday.

“First birthday,” he joked. “Pretty young.”

The months that followed were filled with rehab, and lots of meds to make sure his body doesn’t reject the heart.

He took a year off from hunting, as he spent time with his dog at the place outside Elba they call Ma and Pa’s Cabin.

His experience has kindled a new mission, but it took time.

Dan said, “The thought was kind of me, me, me. I'd had a lot of attention from a lot of people for a while. That kind of went away it it's about other people and educating about being a donor and how much good it can do.”

That meant coming to grips the understanding that his gift was made possible by another person’s tragedy.

“It did bother me at first, thinking someone has to die to be a donor,” he said.

When the time comes, Dan and Peggy want to meet the donor family, who held off of saying their goodbyes in order to buy time for the Griffins to make it through the storm.

Peggy said, “They were gracious to postpone ending their family's life, so we could get there safely.”

The heart has given Dan and Peggy another year together.

Dan said, “I’m very fortunate to have this woman by my side, because she's taken pretty good care of me.

Peggy continued, “Hard to say, but he's died on me three times. He had a heart attack, the first one that started this 14 years ago, he was gone for a while, and they brought him back. I'd kind of like to have him around.”

Peggy says Dan’s back to his usual self, often making trouble with their 13 grandkids.

“You can't stop him,” she said with a smile. “He gets a little upset with me, because I say you're not supposed to do this, but yeah, he feels great.”

And someday, he wants to pay it forward.

Dan said, “They can have anything of mine they can use anymore. I don't think they'll take the heart or kidneys. Eyes, tissue, when I am gone, I don't have any use for them. If they can use them, use them.”

Thankful for those who helped him through the heart of the storm.

As he reflects on what he’s been given.

“The gift of life. That's pretty amazing.”

The Griffins are working with the American Red Cross to honor the firefighters and road workers who helped save his life, with a ceremony scheduled for May.

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