Winnetka woman gets fallen soldier's heart

August 3, 2009 8:54:46 AM PDT
A woman from Winnetka has received a life-saving transplant, thanks to a fallen soldier's family. It's a story of dual sacrifice.Judy Meikle was recovering at home Sunday, just a few days after a heart transplant she had less than two weeks ago. The very active 57-year-old says she feels like the luckiest person in the world.

"I have a heart of a 22-year-old Army Ranger who was a bonafide hero in me. It is so amazing," she told ABC7 Chicago in an exclusive interview.

The heart now beating strongly inside Meikel is that of Ben Kopp, an Army ranger from Minnesota. While serving in Afghanistan, Kopp was involved in a firefight with the Taliban on July 10. After saving the lives of six of his comrades, Kopp was shot. Days later, he died.

However, Kopp's heroism on the battlefield continued in death. He wanted to be an organ donor, and his mother made sure it happened.

"It's absolutely amazing that she, in the darkest hours of life, put other people first," Meikle said.

After being diagnosed with a heart condition she never knew she had, Meikel was placed on a transplant list a few months ago. Two weeks ago, she got a phone call from her close friend, Maria Burud, saying that her cousin, Ben Kopp, had died and was donating his organs.

"I just didn't think it was going to happen," said Meikle. "This is one shot in a million. Forget about it."

Despite the doubts, Ben's heart was a match. Meikel was in and out of surgery in less than five hours, and now, she's home with friends, thankful for her second chance and grateful for a soldier who was a true hero.

"Ben's life was fighting for his country. He died with honor saving lives, but then to add this-- it's icing on the cake," Maria Burud said.

"I never exercised. I keep saying when I jog on the street, they know it is Ben and not me," Meikle said.

Ben Kopp's funeral was held Saturday, and he will be buried Friday in Arlington National Cemetery.

Kopp enlisted in the Army three years ago. He served several tours of duty in the Mideast and eventually joined the Army's Elite Light Infrantry Corps., the Rangers. His unit was assigned to Afghanistan in May.

So far, Kopp's mother, Jill Stephenson, and Judy Meikel have communicated via email only, but they plan to meet sometime this year. Stephenson says she wants to spend the holidays in Chicago where her son's heart is.


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