‘Paula is my hero’; grateful kidney recipient meets family of woman who gave him gift of life

Paula Williams

Paula Williams was a strong and independent woman. Paula did nothing but her best job on any task given to her. Paula grew up in a poor family and as an adult took great pride in the life she worked hard to create for her family. Anything that had her name on it was done to the best it could be. Paula worked hard. She managed the garden department at the small Walmart just a few miles from her home. 

She was married to the love of her life, Duane, for 30 years. It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love. They raised two kids, Krista and Duane, who now have families of their own. Paula had one granddaughter Cierra; Paula was her biggest fan. 

Paula loved going “junkin” and working out in her yard. She also enjoyed going to country music concerts with her daughter Krista. They had attended over 100 concerts together. The last being Florida Georgia Line; Krista remembers Paula singing the song “May We All” and giggling when they said “nothing ain’t cool ’til you wear the new off.” Paula loved old stuff. 

The evening of November 23, 2016, Paula and Duane enjoyed dinner out. Shortly after laying down in bed that night, she awoke suddenly. Something didn’t feel right. She went into cardiac arrest and Duane performed CPR while waiting for the emergency crew. Because of their remote location, it was nearly 30 minutes before they arrived. 

Paula was taken to Shoshone Medical Center in Kellogg, Idaho, where they determined she needed to be transported immediately due to lack of resources at the very small hospital. She was then taken by ambulance to Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene. The team at Kootenai did everything they could to keep Paula alive. However, on Nov. 26, it was declared Paula lost her battle to cardiac arrest; she no longer had brain function. 

When the doctors came in to talk to her family, Paula’s husband mentioned Paula’s desire to be an organ donor. 

Krista and Paula

“Every time she’d renew her driver’s license, she would remind us that she wanted to be a donor,” recalls Krista. “When facing that decision in the moment, I had a lot of questions and worries about the process of organ donation. But it was her wish and we wanted to honor her.”

Paula’s decision to be a donor meant that other people would receive the gift of life. She donated both of her kidneys, her liver, corneas, skin, bone and soft tissue. Paula’s legacy continues because of her determination to do the right thing.

“My mom was the person that would ‘fix it’ if something was broken,” said Krista. “As her final act, my mom got to ‘fix it’ for other people. It is great therapy to know that these people are living good lives because of my mom.”

Hank, one of Paula’s organ recipients, was in dire need of a kidney. About 300,000 Americans suffer from kidney failure and are on dialysis, and about 95,000 people are on the national kidney transplant waiting list. According to Krista, Paula and Hank matched 11 out of the 13 criteria for kidney compatibility – something that is very uncommon. 

On July 10, 2019, Krista and her family met Hank at his family reunion, an experience Krista says changed her life forever. 

When they arrived at the gathering, Krista came face-to-face with the man who received Paula’s kidney. Hank and his family were overflowing with gratitude. The two families spent the day together. The man whose life Paula saved has 12 children, more than 30 grandchildren and more than 20 great-grandchildren. All of his family described him as a hero. When Krista told Hank this, his response was “Paula is my hero.”

Left to right: Duane, Hank, Cierra (Paula’s granddaughter), and Krista

“I have never experienced such gratitude from someone in my life,” says Krista.

“My mom gave this amazing man more time with this family he created,” says Krista. “It brings me great joy to think that for more than two years, she’s been flying with him, sailing with him, and loving on all these kids and grandkids. Hank is living life to the fullest.“

Paula’s family has now been “adopted” by Hank. Krista’s daughter, Cierra, is a high school senior and he’s asked for her schedule of activities for the year. “He wants to be there and be part of it. It makes my daughter feel like her grandmother is going to be there,” says Krista.

“One of my concerns has been keeping my mom’s memory alive,” she notes. “I promise you that this amazing family is doing just that.”

More than that, her family took one more step to honor Paula – they all signed up to be organ donors so that they, too, can save lives. Register today to be a donor.

“Losing my Mom was the most unbearable pain I have felt. Knowing that her life continues to give life to others is like a bandage for a corner of my heart. The gratitude from the other families has been amazing,” Krista said. “LifeCenter Northwest did a great job honoring my mom during the process and keeping our feelings in perspective. I would encourage folks to take into consideration the heroism and joy there is knowing your loved ones saved lives.”