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Decade-long friends get organs from same donor at same time

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – Two longtime friends who received organ transplants from Spectrum Health found their organs were from the same donor.

Gordon Veldman, 67, and Fred Nelis, 60, met through family friends about 10 years ago but hadn’t had much contact in recent years. Both have lived in the Holland area, though Veldman more recently moved to Pentwater.

Veldman had been suffering from a genetic lung condition called Alpha One. He didn’t know he had the condition he was in his late 50s. In February of last year, he was at a 15 percent lung capacity and believed he only had a couple more months to live.

“The end was near. I realized I was in trouble because I could see my mortality in the eyes of my friends,” said Veldman. “They realized that I had no time left. They could see it: the purple face and the purple fingers and the inability to talk.”

Veldman was placed on the list for a lung transplant.

Meanwhile, Nelis had been living with a compromised heart and was on the list for a heart transplant. He had been swimming with the Masters Swimming program, and his performance began to get worse in the early 2000s.

“I had been swimming for the last 47 years and I could tell my performance was deteriorating very rapidly and I swam my last swim meet at East Kentwood High School,” Nelis told 24-Hour News 8.  

Both Veldman and Nelis both underwent transplant surgery on June 28, 2014 at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital without knowing the other was there.

“Some of our friends put it together the night of the surgery that we were both in the same place, at the same time, doing the same thing,” said Veldman.

Family members told Veldman and Nelis that they were both undergoing transplant surgery and they began to see each other at the hospital in passing.

“I would see him go by and I would call out and he would stop and wave,” Veldman said. “We definitely kept track of each other in 7 Heart; it’s a small floor.”

The two later learned that they received organs from the same donor.

They say they are grateful for a second chance at life.

“I don’t know how I could say ‘thank you’ in a way that would be accepted and appreciated, but I’ve got to come up with a way of saying thank you because someone said yes and I got a future,” Veldman said.

“My biggest problem was coming to the realization that in order for me to proceed at a quality of life and eventually be free of mechanical and electrical support items, somebody had to die,” Nelis said. “That’s a harrowing thought. You’re sitting in the hospital thinking, ‘Hmm, is today the day my good fortune will be somebody else’s misfortune or some family’s misfortune?’ It’s kind of a deep moral dilemma.”

In about two weeks, it will be nine months since Veldman and Nelis had their transplant surgeries. Veldman is now at a 96 percent lung capacity and Nelis has started swimming again four days a week.

“We got a gift and it’s best that we treat it as such,” Nelis said.

“Every time we get together, we put the heart and lungs together as close as we can just for a moment so that they can be – and I say this with a grain of salt – but so they can be close again,” said Veldman, “I got a brand new start and who knows, the possibilities are just phenomenal when I was measuring my future in weeks and months before.

Spectrum Health officials said the hospital began doing heart transplants in 2010 and lung transplants in 2012. The hospital does about one to two lung and heart transplants each month. Since Nelis’s heart transplant last June, the hospital has done 50 heart transplants.