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THEORETICALLY: Goodbye to the Tin Man  

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    This photo of Tim L. Waltner and his wife, Mary, and Sally and Nels Miller, was taken at a 20-year celebration of the heart transplant that saved Nels’ life following a massive heart attack. This was taken in September of 2017. Nels died March 5, 2019 at the age of 71.

I said a final goodbye to the Tin Man this week; I attended a Monday morning celebration of the life of Nelson Miller. 

The Tin Man, as some Courier readers may recall,  was what my friend Nels called himself following a massive heart attack in June 1997. Nels was a colleague – the publisher of the Gregory Advocate – and a good friend. The heart attack left him without a functioning heart – thus “the Tin Man” reference – until he became the recipient of a new one. A machine kept him alive until Nels’ new heart arrived, thanks to the generosity of Jacob Sutton, a 16-year-old from Michigan, and his family. Sutton was in a traffic accident on Sept. 16 with injuries too serious to survive. Several months earlier Jacob had told his mother, Connie, about his wish to be an organ donor if he should die. His family honored his wish and on Sept. 17, doctors in Michigan performed emergency surgery to keep Jacob alive so his organs could be harvested. On Sept. 18, doctors in Minnesota placed Jacob’s heart in Nels’ chest.

It kept Nels alive for 21+ years. But last week a combination of a return of heart disease and complications from the daily medications that came with the transplant become too much for Nels’ body. He died Tuesday afternoon, March 5. He was 71.

Monday’s service in Gregory was a ceremonial, communal goodbye. Nels and I had our personal goodbye two weeks earlier in a phone call with him in his hospital room in the University of Minnesota Hospital. We both knew he was not returning to South Dakota. 

The conversation was vintage Nels; strong despite the challenge, totally accepting of his situation, thoughtful and kind. Nels was a man of integrity and I will miss him. 

I met Nels through our shared interests in Rocket Printing in the early 1980s. He was a good board member and I respected his direct approach and common sense attitude. That was the start of a friendship that eventually extended to our families. We’ve treasured our friendship with Nels, his wife, Sally, and daughters Sara and Sonya over the years. 

We took several trips to the Twin Cities to enjoy musical theater and the Millers were regular guests at Schmeckfest. While we didn’t see eye to eye on some issues, we respected each other and focused on our common interests. We actually saw each other infrequently, particularly in recent years; that included meeting for occasional dinners and conversation, and the 10- and 20-year anniversary celebrations of his heart transplant.

Our final words in late February summed up our friendship; it’s the quality of our time together not the quantity, he said. Indeed. 

I’m so grateful for the two bonus decades that an act of generosity and medical technology gave Nels and us.

And so, I’m sharing my story about Nels one last time as a reminder of the importance of organ donation. It was more than Nels who benefited from Jacob’s generosity; Nels family, including his six grandchildren, who were all born after his transplant. His friends, including us, and his community, all benefited from Jacob’s generosity.

Each of us can be generous as well.

As I wrote in an editorial 21 years ago while Nels was waiting for a new heart, “the blunt reality is that for Nels to live, someone is going to have to die. Nels needs a healthy heart. And somewhere, someone has made a commitment to give his or hers away.

There’s a Tin Man waiting.”

It was true for Nels in 1997 and it’s true for someone today.

If you have not yet shared your willingness to become an organ donor, do so now.

Here are some links.

United Network for Organ Sharing: A private, non-profit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government to help make life-saving organ transplants possible each day; 

Lifesource: A nonprofit organization dedicated to saving lives through organ, eye and tissue donation in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and portions of western Wisconsin;

Department of Transportation/Driver License: An online source for information about signing up as a donor if you are renewing or applying for your driver license or ID card.


Tim L. Waltner published the Courier from 1984 to 2016 and remains on staff as a contributing editor, writer and photographer.