Father’s Decision to Donate Helps Family Find Hope After Loss

When Heather Runyan of Portage, Ind., lost her 45-year-old husband Dan to sudden cardiac arrest, she said it was his decision to be an organ and tissue donor that helped their family find hope after his death. Heather said she now has a newfound passion for helping others through being an advocate for donation.

“Now that he is gone, he has given me a new passion — organ and tissue donation,” Heather said. “I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get over the loss of the love of my life. But because he lives on in so many others, I have been able to navigate through and find a new normal.”

Dan was a middle school science teacher for 16 years and was extremely active with the school, serving as head coach of the Science Olympiad team and assistant football and track coach. He was on a run with the middle school running club in February 2018 when he collapsed suddenly and was rushed to the hospital.

After discovering that Dan had a 70% blockage, the doctors placed a stint in one of his arteries. Although the surgery was successful, Dan had to be placed under therapeutic hypothermia to try to reduce damage to his brain, a common treatment for patients whose brains might not have gotten enough oxygen during cardiac arrest. Dan remained in the hospital for two days, but when doctors brought him out of hypothermia, they were unable to revive him.

“He was always so, so selfless and always put us first and made sure that we were all very well taken care of,”

A Selfless Father

Heather said their kids Avery, 16, and Cole, 11, loved that Dan was a teacher because he got all their school breaks off, too. They spent a lot of time at the Deep River Waterpark in Merrillville, Ind., and Dan would also take them to the Indiana Dunes and to Brookfield Zoo and museums in Chicago. Dan was also a “big supporter” of the kids’ school activities, like Cole’s basketball or flag football games and Avery’s marching band concerts.

“He was always so, so selfless and always put us first and made sure that we were all very well taken care of,” said Heather.

But Dan had his passions, too. After a doctor told him about four years ago that he was borderline diabetic, Dan made a total lifestyle overhaul by changing his diet and exercising six days a week.

“The doctor sent him home with a glucose testing kit. He had a few choice words to say about that, and he proceeded to shove it into a drawer in the bathroom,” said Heather. “And from that day forward, he totally changed his lifestyle.”

He started jogging first, and that led to several 5Ks, two 10-mile Tough Mudders, a Spartan Race, two halfmarathons, two Warrior Dashes, and several obstacle races. Right before his death, Dan was training for his next goal – the Chicago Marathon.

Hope After Loss

It was because Dan had gotten so healthy that his death was so shocking, but Dan’s decision to be an organ and tissue donor helped his family find hope after his death. Because of Dan’s gift, Gift of Hope was able to achieve more than 220 successful donation outcomes, including 156 bone grafts, 60 skin grafts, four tendon transplants, and two cornea transplants. His donations impacted people in New Jersey, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Nevada, New Mexico, Georgia, Florida, Kansas, California and Iowa.

“I am so thankful that he made this decision [to be a donor],” Heather said. “This experience of being a donor wife has been so amazingly comforting to not only me, but to my family, Dan’s family and our friends because of everybody that has benefited.”

Heather said Dan’s decision has also been healing for Avery and Cole, who are proud of their dad for helping so many people. In fact, Heather said Avery recognized the selflessness of her dad’s decision to become a donor and decided to register to become a donor when she registered for her driver’s permit.

“Some people mourn the loss, and that’s where it ends; you’re left continuing to mourn,” said Heather. “But when donation enters the picture, it gives us hope because our loved one is able to live on in others, and we can move past our mourning.”


Dan and his family enjoyed a fun getaway in May 2016 to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Left to Right: Dan Runyan, Avery Runyan, Heather Runyan, Cole Runyan.