Naperville's Jill Zuleg thought she was going to a management meeting at Edward Hospital last month when she was surprised with a reception announcing she had been named the national winner of Cherokee Uniforms' 2012 Inspired Comfort Award.
The health-care uniform company honored five medical professionals who inspired and impacted the lives of others with their care and innovation.
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Zuleg, a registered nurse in Edward's obstetrics department, was recognized for turning the tragic loss of her 16-year-old son into comfort and support for other grieving families going through the process of organ donation. She received a trophy, a trip to a medical conference of her choosing, and other prizes.
"I knew I was nominated, but I didn't know I was a winner," Zuleg said. "It was a surprise."
It's been 2½ years since Zuleg and her family lost Kyle. They had joined friends on an annual camping trip in Homer Glen in October 2010 when Kyle and a friend of his were pinned under a falling tree branch during a game of flashlight tag. The friend survived. Kyle suffered a spinal cord injury and was declared brain-dead.
After deciding to donate Kyle's organs, Zuleg and her husband, Matthew, sat at his bedside for three long nights while matches were found. Seven of his organs were given to five recipients.
"The community was a huge support to us after the loss of Kyle. We had a lot of memorial donations that came in. We decided to create the Kyle Zuleg Foundation," she said.
Remembering their own experience during those nights at Kyle's beside, the Zulegs wanted to give blankets to families going through the same experience.
"We hope it will provide warmth, comfort and support for people sitting with their loved one while they are going through the organ donation process," Zuleg said.
So far, 15 blankets carrying the words "Forever in our Hearts" have been donated to families, she said. Zuleg said eventually she would like to see the program go national.
"Right now, we're in 14 hospitals," she said. "Our first goal is to get them in every hospital in Illinois."
The blankets are given to grieving families by hospital chaplains, who have told the Zulegs that they have been well received. Some hospitals also include a gift basket providing refreshments for the waiting families.
Patty Foley, a clinical nurse educator at Edward Hospital, nominated Zuleg for the award after hearing Zuleg give a presentation on organ donation. A mother herself who did not know her co-worker well, Foley said that she was moved by Zuleg's strength.
"She told her story from a family perspective. Extremely touching," Foley said.
When Foley then came across information on the Cherokee Inspired Comfort Award, she researched Zuleg's foundation and wrote a nomination.
"As soon as I saw the title, Inspired Comfort Award, her name came to me right away," Foley said. "Her story needs to be told, and this is such a wonderful opportunity. I'm honored to have written it."
The foundation also remembers Kyle by annually giving a $1,000 scholarship to a graduating senior from each of Naperville's five high schools who plans to major in communications and media. Last year -- the year Kyle would have graduated from Neuqua Valley -- the foundation gave 12 scholarships to meet the request of every student who applied.
"Kyle had ambitions of being a sports broadcaster," Zuleg said. "Ever since he was little, he loved sports."
Kyle played volleyball at Neuqua Valley, and his No. 17 jersey was retired after his death. Zuleg's only other child, Kristen, is now a freshman at the high school.
Zuleg said she has had contact with most of Kyle's organ recipients, though she respects the privacy of those who may not feel comfortable with getting in touch. Two of the recipients will be present at the 2013 Kyle Shines On fundraiser at 7 p.m. April 13 at Bolingbrook Country Club, 7001 Rodeo Drive, Bolingbrook. Other guests will include Dave Savani, CBS 2 news reporter; Rob Elgas of NBC 5; and Connie Payton, widow of football great Walter Payton.
Ticket prices are $60 for participants ages 21 and older, $30 for those younger and include an evening of music, dancing, live and silent auctions, and raffle prizes. Tickets are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The donation of Kyle's organs and the work of the foundation are a way for her son to live on and the family to tell his story, Zuleg said.
"The love, gratitude and appreciation the recipients show are unbelievable. Kyle lives on through them, shines through the recipients," she said. "He became a hero."