Kristina Becker’s journey to a new heart

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A member benefit event turns into a joyous celebration as teenager receives new heart

“Due to joyous circumstances, Kristina would not be attending the benefit in her honor…”

When a Member Assistance Benefit is underway, there can be a somber undertone since the reason everyone has gathered is to support a member facing hardship. But as Gerard Becker of Long Prairie, Minn., walked the room at a benefit being held for his then 15 year-old daughter, Kristina, he and hundreds of supporters had something to celebrate.

The second youngest of Gerard and Kim Becker’s nine children, Kristina had suffered from a serious heart condition since birth. Beginning June of 2016, she was in and out of the hospital, her condition worsening. The benefit, held Oct. 23 at St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church in Long Prairie, was to raise money for the Beckers to offset insurance costs, meet household needs and maintain a constant presence at Kristina’s side.

She had planned to attend with her parents and family. But instead, she lay unconscious, recovering with Kim at her side. Gerard Becker attended with his other daughters and the joyful knowledge that for the first time in her life, Kristina was sleeping with a perfectly healthy heart. A beating heart Becker had seen with his own eyes, pumping away in plain view right there in Kristina’s still-open chest.

As nearly 500 people milled and greeted him and wished his family all their best wishes, Becker said there were still a lot of unidentifiable emotions going on inside.

“But when you have an experience like that, with hundreds of people showing their support, how can I just drag around? Wouldn’t be right.” Becker says. “The words ‘Thank you’ got used a lot that day.”

A lifetime of waiting

On Jan.18, 2001, Kristina Becker became Gerard and Kim Becker’s eighth child. She came home on a Friday, and by Sunday morning, she was in an ambulance on the way to the emergency room. Her organs were failing from a lack of oxygen brought on by hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition which left Kristina’s lower left ventricle and ascending aorta unformed. The heart was unable to pump enough blood through the body.

After stabilizing baby Kristina, the Beckers had to wait almost two weeks for her organs to recover enough to undertake the first of three surgeries to repair her heart. Before she was out of diapers, Kristina and her family had endured more than many ever do and always knowing that some day much too soon the heart she was born with would fail.

“People sometimes ask me, ‘How do you even live through this?’ They were like that when Kristina was born and had all the hospitalizations,” Becker says. “How do you get by when you have a big family and serious health problems?’ By God’s grace, we just do.”

At age 9, Kristina once again needed a major surgery to open up arteries leading to her lungs — her fourth open-heart procedure. Still, the doctors and her family hoped to extend the date of the transplant she would need to survive.

Because of the size of their family, Becker says they’d experienced many times in their life the need to live within their means and when times got tight, God provided. But regardless of their own issues, the Beckers were always available to lend a helping hand in the community and in their parish and Council.

“The family has always been there to help us with our fundraisers,” St. Mary of Mount Carmel Fraternal Secretary Bonnie Claseman says. “Even Kristina was there to help with our seminarian French toast breakfasts.”

In June 2016, Kristina’s energy began to “flag tremendously” says her father. A trip to the hospital revealed once again her other organs were struggling. Kim and Gerard spent much of their time with Kristina in the hospital.

“The community was well aware and very supportive when this was going on,” Becker says.

Sharon Koll, a neighbor and the volunteer liaison of the Long Prairie Council, watched all the Becker children grow. She noticed when things began to get difficult for the family. Margaret Becker, 20, and number five of nine, was interested in trying to help raise money. Her mother suggested she talk to Koll about putting on a benefit to help cover the family’s growing expenses. Koll was immediately on board, and she wasn’t the only one.

“When I called around and asked if we wanted to put on one of these special needs benefits with Catholic United, everyone said ‘definitely,'” Koll says. “We’re a service organization, that’s what we want to do. People want to help.”

The gears begin to turn

A Catholic United Member Assistance grant will match up to the first $1,000 a benefit event generates, and events routinely make many times that amount. To maximize the crowd at the event for the Beckers, organizers began advertising in the parish bulletin and those of nearby parishes two months in advance of the Oct. 23rd event. The Council worked with the Beckers’ home school group solicited donations and hosted a silent auction. For those who couldn’t wait or couldn’t attend the benefit, Koll helped set up a bank account in the Beckers’ name. Anyone who wished to make a donation could simply write a check to the account. And relying on their experience with seminarian French toast breakfasts, the Council opted to do an after-mass benefit, rather than a dinner.

“They wondered if maybe a supper would work better, but I explained that if we had it after mass, people were already there,” Koll explains. “It’s hard to get them to come back.” The Council also opted for a free will offering instead of a flat charge.

Some people resist the idea of a benefit, Koll says. “But when you’re down and out, don’t you want people to come and offer help, especially in rural areas? That’s just what we do.”

Becker says that while he may at first have been “stubborn and proud” he once heard a bit of advice: “If I humble myself to accept charity, some other person gains spiritually by being generous. Shouldn’t I let them do that? If that’s what God wants for them?”

But as the benefit drew nearer, Kristina’s condition declined. On Sept. 29 it was decided the time had come to stop putting off the inevitable and to add her to the transplant list.

“They want to wait as long in life as they can,” Becker explains, “because there is so much that comes after a transplant that she will have to deal with the rest of her life. She couldn’t put it off any longer.”

They were told it would likely take two to four months for a suitable organ to be found. She was allowed to return home to wait for a donor.

“There were literally people praying for us all over the country,” Becker says.

On Oct. 10, Kristina went in for a follow-up exam and was re-hospitalized. That changed her status to 1A — top of the list. One of her parents was at her side at all times as the days passed.

A phone rings in a field

“Kim was at the hospital, so she found out first,” Becker says of the Oct. 16 news that a heart had been found. “I happened to be walking in our field when she called, and as soon as I found out, I cried. That was my first reaction, I don’t even know what emotion was attached to it, just an emotional release.”

He and his daughters arranged for the care of their animals and sped to the hospital.

The new organ was transplanted in the early morning hours of Oct. 17 and by the next afternoon, the Beckers were able to visit the unconscious Kristina in the ICU. Becker describes a surreal scene: the operation wound still open and the new heart visibly beating beneath a thin plastic membrane.

“I can’t describe the feeling of seeing that,” Becker says.

Like Kristina’s new prognosis, the mood at the benefit was good. The outpouring of community support drew almost 500 people – including many non-Catholics. It raised over $12,000 for the family and overwhelmed the organizers’ food plans.

“We had to run out for food, we ran out! We did not expect that many,” Claseman says. “It seemed much more like this was a celebration, that all these people came out to help. It was joyous.”

Feeling God’s Grace

A couple months have passed since Kristina’s procedure, and she continues to gain strength and endurance. Gerard explains that despite such a happy outcome with the transplant, much work remains. Now that the heart is healthy, the rest of her body has to recover as well from a lifetime of increased toil and reduced circulation. New complications do arise. And ever since the New Year, all deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses for Kristina are reset, so there will be significant costs to address in the future. But the Beckers take it in stride.

“All I can do is attribute it to people praying for us and helping us, I definitely feel God’s grace working in my life and my family’s,” Becker says. “It’s not that it’s easy, but I have a strange peace about this whole time in our lives.”

They now look forward to celebrating milestones along the way. After two biopsies, the body was showing no sign of rejecting the new heart. They look forward to leaving the hospital soon and going to a rehab facility. There, she’ll re-learn how to do some things, and learn others for the first time. Gerard says Kristina has always been involved in the family’s activities, but they’re all very excited to see what Kristina’s capable of when she is out of the hospital and back into regular life.

“I don’t think Kristina realizes how dramatically her life is going to change once she’s through recovery,” Becker says. “She’s grown up with some barriers, and now, those barriers will no longer be there. We have no way of knowing how it will all pan out, but we can still dream about those things.”

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