ROCKFORD -- The heart that beats in Gary Robb's chest will connect him forever to Patty Duerkop, nearly 250 miles away in northern Wisconsin.
Robb, 72, received a heart transplant in 2009 at UW Hospital in Madison, Wis., after suffering for years with congestive heart failure. The donor was Duerkop's only son, 16-year-old Andrew Duerkop, who died after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle.
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A year after the surgery, Robb traveled from Rockford to Madison to meet Duerkop for the first time. When they met, Duerkop placed her head against Robb's chest to hear his heartbeat.
Today, Robb is in fine health and happy that the opportunity to thank Duerkop blossomed into a special friendship.
Several of Andrew's other organs also helped people who needed them. Duerkop, who lives in Eau Claire, has talked to families of some of the other organ recipients, but her relationship with the Robbs is by far the closest.
"When they come over, I never want them to go," Duerkop said. "To me, home is where the heart is. He brings Andrew home every time he comes to see me."
Robb and his wife, Fran, were first scheduled to meet with Duerkop during the National Kidney Foundation's U.S. Transplant Games, an event for transplant recipients, donors and their families, that happened to be taking place in Madison in 2010. But they ran into each other at the hotel where they were staying before the event.
Hospital rules required them to wait a year after the surgery to make contact, and both families had to consent to the meet-up.
"It's important that both families are ready to make it successful," Fran Robb said. "You want so much to be compatible ... I was so thankful that we hit it off so well right away."
Duerkop has visited Rockford a few times since that first visit, and the Robbs stop to see her in Eau Claire on the way to Minneapolis to visit Fran's son.
Duerkop even has made a few public appearances to speak about the overall experience.
She said Andrew had indicated that he wanted to be an organ donor as young as 8 years old.
Duerkop said she and her son actually had talked about organ donation about a week before he was killed.
"At the hospital when they asked me, I wasn't going to (donate his organs)," Duerkop said. "I totally hesitated. And then I saw this vision of Andrew's student identification card with that donor sticker.
"To me, it was the last thing I could do to honor him, to honor his wishes. His decision was made for me."