Central Illinois Farmer sets off lifesaving domino effect
Dale Lessen had two major loves in his life — his family and farming. The Lincoln, Ill. resident began working as a farmer in 1984 with his father Bill Lessen and spent 35 years of his life cultivating corn and soybean fields throughout Logan County. On April 17, 2019, Dale, 57, was working in a soggy field with farm employee Randy Grohmann, a hired hand he’d recently contracted, when he collapsed. Community volunteer first responders answered the distress call from Randy who performed CPR on Dale until help arrived.
The next day at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Ill., Dale’s family confronted the sudden and tragic loss of their loved one despite doctors’ and nurses’ efforts to save him. Amid her grief, Dale’s wife, Sarah Lessen, honored her husband’s decision to plant different types of seeds when he was gone — seeds of life and hope. Dale was a registered organ and tissue donor and saved three lives through his organ gifts and will save and enhance many more lives through his tissue gifts. Sarah credits the efforts of Randy and first responders who administered CPR on Dale for keeping his organs viable and making donation possible.
A Domino Effect
A couple of weeks before Dale passed away, he renewed his driver’s license and, as he’d always done, according to his wife, he opted to be a registered donor. Sarah never expected that Dale’s selfless action would set off what she calls a “domino effect” that would potentially inspire and positively impact so many people. Sarah’s goal is to honor her husband’s legacy by keeping the momentum of that domino effect going as long as possible. “I want to help make more people aware of the importance of talking to your family about donation,” Sarah said. “Because they’ll know your decision ahead of time, and if that conversation is had then they’ll know what to expect.” In the days and weeks following her husband’s death, Sarah learned more about how Dale’s wish to donate truly inspired an entire community.
“There are so many people who have said they registered to become donors because of Dale,” Sarah said. “It’s like a domino effect. It may not be now, it may be 30 years from now, but if something happens to one of those people and they save lives, it started with Dale.” Before Dale saved and enhanced the lives of others through the gift of donation, he was already a hero in the eyes of his family. Dale and Sarah married in 1993 and dedicated themselves to their nearly 26- year marriage and to their two daughters, Shelby and Ashley. “He was my everything,” said Sarah. “I could not in my wildest dreams have asked for a better husband and a better father for my daughters. He was a great friend and life partner. He was a hero in our eyes long before he saved lives. This just makes him a superhero.”
Time, Care and Support
When the opportunity to donate arises, a series of actions are set into motion to make donation possible. The donation process adds more days to the donor and families time in the hospital. This can be difficult for some donor families, but for Sarah and her family, it meant more time by Dale’s side.
“Any extra time that I could sit there and hold his hand was comforting to me, so I definitely had more time with him,” Sarah said. “We also had family members and friends visiting. The waiting room was always full of people.”
While the donation process is underway, hospital staff can become a source of strength for donor families. During this time, they often go above and beyond to provide donor families with compassionate care to help comfort and support them. Simple things like covering donors’ loved ones with warm blankets, answering questions and becoming familiar and caring faces have memorable and positive impacts on donor families. This was the case for Sarah and her family, who were treated with respect, compassion and dignity throughout Dale’s donation, she recalled. Similarly, hospital staff members who help make donation happen are also touched by donor families.
“Nurses sometimes have bad days,” said Tess Massey, RN. “But it’s always a meaningful experience to take care of a patient who is donating life, and Dale’s family members were truly amazing people. Caring for Dale and his family gave me some of the most extraordinary and rewarding days of my nursing career.”
On the day that Dale became a donor, Memorial Medical Center held its first honor walk. Family, friends and medical staff lined the halls of the hospital as Dale was transported to the operating room where surgeons recovered his organs.
“It seemed like there were hundreds of people; it was such a beautiful tribute,” Sarah said. “There was also a flag-raising ceremony at the hospital. We felt very honored, and the experience is one we won’t forget.”
Another nurse who provided care during the night shift to Dale and his family was Katelin Hadley, RN, BSN. She was so touched by the family’s bravery and generosity that she attended Dale’s honor walk the next day after her night shift.
“Caring for Dale and his family was such an honor,” said Katelin. “The experience was tough but extremely rewarding. I grew close with the Lessen family, and it only felt right to come in during the day shift for his honor walk. I think about Dale and his family every single day. They will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Honoring Dale’s Lifesaving Legacy
Dale was a smalltown farmer with a giant heart. Described by Sarah as a hardworking and honest man who was wellrespected in the community, Dale was loved by many friends and family. Quick to volunteer and help when anyone needed him, Dale was the type who “not only talked about doing good things, he did them,” Sarah said.
“People thought highly of him,” said Sarah. “He was always willing to help, and that was one of the many things I loved about him.”
One of the ways Sarah and Dale’s family is honoring his gifts and the lifesaving legacy he created is by becoming donation advocates and sharing their story to help increase awareness about the importance and significance of donation. But another unique and huge way they’re honoring Dale is by purchasing space on a billboard in Lincoln, Ill., at the 1300 block of Woodlawn Road. The billboard is a call to action to members of the surrounding communities to register to become donors and to ensure that their family members and friends know about their decisions by having the donation conversation with them. “Everyone in town goes down that road,” Sarah said. “I think it’s going to be a good reminder because half the town knew Dale and knew his story. Even if we get one more person to sign up, it could save a life down the road. The more people we make aware of the importance of donation and the more people we get to sign up, the more my husband continues to be a hero. If this brings awareness to even one community, the billboard has done its job.”