Daughter's death drives push for life
Loren and Monica Kersting lost their 14-year-old daughter five years ago. Still, she is with them every day and everywhere they go.
Alexa Kersting not only inspired her parents to carry on her legacy, but she has become a major force behind efforts that may change the lives for those waiting for organ transplants.
"We wanted to crawl in a hole; it's that hard on you to where you feel you've lost everything," Loren said. "It just takes every ounce of energy you have. It's in memory of Alexa to continue on."
The West Fargo couple has done more than continue on since July 2004 when their brown-eyed daughter's heart gave out while in her father's arms.
For a year, she had been optimistically waiting for a lung transplant on the regional transplant list. She was No. 1 on the list, but a donor wasn't found in time.
The tragedy propelled the couple to travel the state and nation, telling their story and urging change in organ donor policies.
"Hopefully there are people living today because of it," Loren says.
In April, the North Dakota Legislature passed a bill supporting an online organ donor registry. The North Dakota Department of Transportation plans to launch the site in January.
The Kerstings hope it's a key step toward making organ donor registry convenient and accessible - boosting the numbers of organ donors.
Washington, D.C., and 37 states, including Minnesota, already have online registries. Minnesota's site is www.donatelifemn.org.
"It's like wearing seat belts; that's just what you do," Loren said.
Of North Dakota license-holders, 62 percent are organ donors while in Minnesota, 52 percent are.
The national average is 40 percent, added Susan Mau Larson, the director of public affairs for St. Paul-based LifeSource, an organ procurement organization for Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and western Wisconsin.
Still, every day, on average nationally, 18 people die waiting for a transplant. About 100,000 people are on the national organ transplant list - 2,670 from this region.
So to help those who are waiting, the Kerstings are reaching out.
In May, with the help of the Impact Foundation, they launched "Alexa's Hope," a nonprofit that provides online resources for families with children on organ transplant lists.
"You don't know where to go; we didn't know," Monica said.
Besides a list of resources, their Web site tells their daughter's story.
"Alexa is so much more than a person who died wanting a transplant," Monica added. "She was and is so much more."
Today, reminders of Alexa are everywhere.
At the local Department of Motor Vehicles, pamphlets with her smiling face list organ donation information.
At West Fargo's South Elementary where Loren is the principal, a mural with Alexa's picture is surrounded by students' artwork in honor of her passion for drawing and belief that everyone should be recognized.
At the Kerstings' lake cabin, the couple still tends a prairie flower garden Alexa planted while on oxygen the summer before she died. Outside their West Fargo home is a heart-shaped garden with pink roses, planted as a memorial to Alexa.
And upstairs, the
14-year-old's room is unchanged. It, too, is becoming a sort of memorial.
"Every time I go in there, I feel like I can't even ... breathe," Monica said, choking up. "There's something about when you get rid of stuff, I don't know. ..."
And then there's the high school diploma the couple accepted last year in Alexa's honor.
"To not ever see that ... to see what she could have done," Loren said, his voice breaking. "People keep telling you that it will get better, and I don't know what that is yet."
They find solace, though, in the fact that today their daughter remains a huge part of their lives and the community.
"Alexa continues to affect people," Loren said. "We don't want people to ever forget who she was, that we lost her. If it means one person checks a box, you can go to your grave knowing you made a difference."