Subscribe for 33¢ / day

DIXON, Neb. | When a cause is near and dear to your heart, you'll likely go to any lengths to promote it.

Having been on both the receiving and giving end of organ donations, the Erwin family of rural Dixon knows first-hand the difference an organ donor can make in someone's life. At every opportunity, they make their case for people to sign up to be donors.

That advocacy recently took them to New York and an appearance on national television, telling their story on NBC's "Today" show with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. Mom June Erwin and daughter Tiffany Plager shared their family's story of how organ donation has affected them.

"We want everybody to sign up to be an organ donor. There are so many people waiting (for a transplant)," Erwin said.

She knows what it's like to wait with uncertainty.

In 2006, she was put on the waiting list for a transplant when her liver began to fail because of hepatitis C, which she believes she contracted from a needle stick while working as a nurse nearly 30 years earlier.

In February 2007, she received a liver and, after three months in the hospital, gradually returned to full health with the realization of how important organ donation was. Soon, family members were signed up to be donors, and Erwin encouraged anyone who would listen to do the same.

"You just wanted to spread the word to your friends, your family," she said.

Little did she know that a few years later the family would be on the other side of organ donation.

In December 2014, husband Tom fell while working on a grain bin on the family's farm, struck his head on the frozen ground and died. His liver and a kidney were donated, prolonging life for someone else.

Tom's death and donation reinforced the family's commitment to the cause. When the 10th anniversary of Erwin's transplant came in February, Plager wanted to share her family's story with a wider audience.

"I wanted to pay tribute to my dad and the man he was and to share about my mom and her story and how important it is to be a donor," said Plager, who lives in Wayne, Nebraska.

A regular viewer of the "Today" show, she wrote a one-page letter to the show's producers, hoping it might be included in a regular segment called "Everyone has a Story."

She mailed the letter, telling no one, figuring she'd never hear back.

"I thought the chances probably aren't that great, but maybe," she said.

A couple weeks later, a producer called to ask for more details and some photos. The producer called back later that day, informing Plager her letter had been chosen for the show.

Upon being informed of the letter and the invitation to New York, Erwin was a little flabbergasted.

"I just couldn't believe it," she said.

But on April 26, NBC flew Erwin and Plager to New York. They were joined by two of Erwin's sons, Heath and Blake. A third son, Wyatt, was unable to go.

The next day, Erwin and Plager were sharing their story with Kathie Lee and Hoda, and a national TV audience.

"I wasn't really nervous because I was sharing our life, our story. These are questions I knew the answers to," Plager said, adding that Kathie Lee said she had been touched by her letter.

As part of the segment, Kathie Lee wrote lyrics to a song about Tom that she titled "The Farmer." It was performed on the show by Broadway singer Moya Angela.

Erwin and Plager then were treated to an afternoon at the spa at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and dinner at a fine New York restaurant. After some sightseeing, the family returned home late the next day.

Before the show was over, Plager was able to give a big plug for the cause, informing viewers how they could sign up to be an organ donor.

After returning home, Plager learned that the message was getting around. The family received numerous texts and emails from family and friends, some of whom they hadn't heard from in years.

"After seeing it, they signed up to become donors, so that's really cool," Plager said. "It's been shared a lot. I hope that people watching were touched by that."

The two said their faith got them through Tom's death, and they know he'd be proud of their efforts, though his humble ways would have left him a little uncertain about the thought of having his photo splashed on TV screens across the country.

It's that faith that continues to give the family hope for other donors and those who need organ transplants. Erwin's sister currently is waiting for a lung transplant, so the family continues to pray that their message is heard.

"Any chance we get, we're pushing it," Erwin said. "Just keep it going."

All the way to New York. And beyond, if need be.


Court reporter

Load comments