Updated: 05/20/2014 10:41 PM
Created: 05/20/2014 4:06 PM WDIO.com
Tessa Hertel was excited to graduate high school on Saturday. But she was even more excited, when she saw her donor family at the ceremony in South Dakota.
"I was so shocked to see them there, because they told me they weren't coming," she told us via Skype. The mother and brother of her organ donor attended the ceremony, as a surprise.
It was part of a 17 year journey between the families.
Tessa was born with a liver disease. At one year old, she received the liver, of Kristin Burkholder.
"Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday," reflected Kristin's father, Kevin. He's speaking of the crash that took his daughter's life. Kristin, then 12, was at track practice when she was hit by a car. That was back in April of 1997.
"I know Kristin would have wanted to give back. So I told the doctors, do whatever you can, to make sure she can donate her organs. Many of her organs were donated. Tessa is the one person we keep in touch with," Burkholder told us.
"We truly believe it's a gift from God, that Kristin's death saved Tessa," he added.
Tessa told us she gets emotional when she speaks about it. "It's really touching to know their daughter lives within me. They've watched me grow up, and they can see Kristin in me."
We asked Tessa what she plans to do now. She wants to become a nurse, to help give back to those who helped her survive.
If she could, she'd give Kristin a hug and never let go. "She saved my life."
As for organ donation, she encourages everyone to do it. "I just found out I can be a donor. So even if you have medical conditions, you can still help others."
Kristin's father recently handed out scholarship's in her name, at the Esko High School. Money is raised through the annual Kristin Burkholder Memorial 5K, which happens each August in Esko.
"Those are two things that have helped us through this tragedy. The scholarships to help young people, and seeing Tessa thrive," Kevin Burkholder added.
Their family also encourages anyone to be an organ donor.
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