Huntington Beach heart transplant recipient meets her donor's parents

ORANGE, Calif. (KABC) -- A Huntington Beach woman who received the gift of a new heart 20 years ago was able to meet the parents of the young donor who saved her life.

Only 1 percent of donor families ever meet their loved one's organ recipient, which made the meeting between 75-year-old Inger Jessen and her donor's family in Orange on Monday rare, remarkable and emotional.

Shirley Mason lost her daughter, 18-year-old Nikki Mason, 20 years ago. For the first time since Nikki's death, Shirley heard her daughter's heartbeat.

"I could hear her heart beat and it reminded me of those days. It was great," Shirley said as she listened through a stethoscope.

Jessen received her transplanted organ on May 15, 1997. It was just days after Nikki was struck by a vehicle while walking in Big Bear.

Dan Mason, Nikki's father, said the meeting was a big moment for he and his wife.

"I was so hurt that I would never be able to see her get married or watch her have kids or anything," Dan explained.

Two years after her transplant surgery, Jessen honored Nikki by winning a gold medal in swimming at the Transplant Olympic Games in Budapest. At Monday's meeting, she presented the medal to Nikki's parents who were touched by the similarities between Jessen and their daughter.

"My daughter loved to hike," Shirley recalled. "She loved nature."

"I taught her how to swim," Dan said. "She was a damn good swimmer."

The average life expectancy of a heart transplant recipient is about 10 years. After 20 years, Jessen credits receiving a healthy heart for her longevity, but also said she has taken incredible care of the gift.

"I kept it strong and it helped because I couldn't even walk from my house to my car before I got my heart. It was so bad, " Jessen, who was dying from a genetic condition called cardiosclerosis when she received the transplant, recalled.

Jessen said she was grateful that she got to see her 10 grandchildren grow and Dan said he knew the decision to donate his daughter's organs was the right one. Nikki was able to donate organs and tissue to five different people.

"You have to put your grief aside and look to the future of people who can be living because of what you can donate," Dan said.

In California, 22,000 people are waiting for an organ donation. The meeting between Jessen and Nikki's family was made possible by the organization One Legacy.
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