By JOANNE FOX
DANBURY – Family, friends and acquaintances came together Oct. 22 for an unusual birthday celebration in this Woodbury County town.
Janelle “Nellie” Claussen was the guest-of-honor celebrating her 56th birthday and the first year of receiving a transplanted heart and liver.
The youngest child of Raymond and Marcella Kluver of Charter Oak was born Oct. 22, 1961, with a heart murmur. It wasn’t common knowledge among folks, not even her husband, Mark.
“I found out after we were married in 1984,” he said, then, with a twinkle in his eye, added, “I would have married her anyway.”
Six months after their marriage, Janelle had open heart surgery at University Hospitals in Iowa City to repair a hole in her heart. Over the next two decades, the Clausens raised their two sons (a granddaughter joined the family about eight weeks ago) and worked. Janelle was employed by Danbury Catholic School and St. Mary Parish; Mark is at New Coop in Mapleton.
Doctor and hospital visits were routine for Janelle until 2006, when her health began to seriously deteriorate. Medication changes did not seem to relieve her distress.
“I was tired a lot. I was out of breath a lot. I was dizzy a lot,” she recalled. “Mark insisted we travel to Rochester for another opinion.”
Janelle spent three days of testing at the Mayo Clinic and was told she might be a strong candidate for a heart transplant, as well as a liver transplant, due to the damage the heart drugs inflicted on her liver.
“At the time I was 50 and they were confident I could be helped,” she said. “They were honest in saying if I was 70, it wouldn’t be the same situation.”
Over the next five years, Janelle and Mark made regular visits to the Mayo Clinic to monitor her continuing failing health. In January of 2012, Janelle became “listed” for a heart and liver transplant.
“That was bittersweet,” she admitted. “I knew for me to get those organs, someone else would have to lose their life.”
Janelle’s health was still precarious and the last six months prior to the transplant, she gained 49 pounds of fluid.
“I got the call at 7:18 p.m., Father’s Day of last year,” she said. “They said they had a heart and liver for me and I was so astonished, I asked them three times, ‘What did you say?’, before I finally handed the phone to Mark.”
“They told me the same thing, but I was writing down what we were supposed to do next,” Mark clarified.
Janelle shared the most-asked question from others was, “What do you know about the donor?”
“We know both organs came from a man, who with his organ donations, saved 52 lives, but we don’t know his age or name or anything else,” she said. “We will write a letter, asking for more information and explaining how things are going with me.”
After 11 days in intensive care and eight days in a hospital room, Janelle was sent to the Gift of Life Transplant House in Rochester, where she remained until Sept. 15, before returning home to Danbury.
Janelle felt in the five years between 2006-2011, her faith changed.
“I feel closer to God and I think God,” she said, pointing to heaven and pausing, “God has provided me with that closeness.”
The event on Oct. 22 packed the Danbury Catholic School gym and featured a dinner, bake sale, live auction and music by JK Country Band, in which Janelle’s brother John Kluver plays the drums.
“We thought something needed to be done for our baby sister,” said John, who is number four in the Kluver birth order. “People just surfaced and offered to help with every aspect of it and I was happy to provide some music.”
Janelle, sporting a blue mask decorated with colorful stars, greeted everyone who came in the door. With a practically giddy demeanor, she thanked them for their time, talent and/or treasure through the years of health challenges.
“We have medical insurance,” Mark noted. “But insurance doesn’t cover the gas, the car maintenance, the meals, the lodging and so many other expenses associated with Nellie’s health care. That’s why we are so grateful to God and everyone else who has supported us.”
The joy of the couple’s much-improved lives was evident in their ecstatic faces.
“I feel so much better!” Janelle gushed.
“She has so much more strength,” Mark noted.
Those delighted feelings manifest itself in different ways for the Clausens.
“My goal now is to do more for more people,” Janelle said.
“I look at Nellie and I think of how much she has missed over the years with her poor health,” Mark said. “Now, I get to ask her, ‘Where are you going now?’ and that’s so wonderful.”
In reflection, Janelle added, “I would tell others to hang in there when they feel at their lowest. Don’t give up. I like to say, ‘You may see me fail, but I’m not going to give up.’”
“God has been good to us,” Mark said.