Dan Donnelly Jr. never got to see his daughter, Heather Renee Donnelly, walk down the aisle on her wedding day. Four years ago, she passed in a car accident three days before she was set to marry her fiancé.
But through Heather’s lifesaving gift of organ donation, Dan had the chance to experience what it would have been like when Diana Donnarumma, one of the eight people who received organ transplants from Heather, had her dream wedding in August 2021.
Diana, 28, was married at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Buffalo, New York. The event was made extra special because Dan walked her halfway down the aisle. Halfway down the path, Diana’s biological father, Glen, took over and escorted her the rest of the way.
“I try to carry on her spirit the best I can every day,” the bride said. “And I felt like I needed to – but also I wanted to – give her father the opportunity.”
Heather was on her way to a friend’s birthday party in October 2017 when she was fatally injured in a vehicular accident.
She was only 26 then and had just received her master’s degree in counseling months prior from the Texas A&M Corpus Christ campus. She wanted to work with children.
“There were lots of kids at her funeral. It was just unbelievable all the little kids that were coming there from day cares and everywhere. It was just amazing,” Dan recalled.
Dan didn’t know that Heather was an organ donor until he got to the hospital. He said her daughter’s organs saved the lives of seven other people.
Diana has dealt with health issues since childhood. In 2016, she was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a debilitating gastrointestinal condition wherein the stomach can’t adequately push food further down the digestive tract. Her illness forced her to live on intravenous nutrition.
In October of the same year, a surgical team removed Diana’s colon, but it didn’t help.
In September 2017, she learned that she was on the transplant list at MedStar Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The following month, a hospital transplant team member called her to say they had organs for her. Heather’s antibodies and blood type were a perfect match.
Diana received the donor’s small intestine and the right portion of her large intestine in a lifesaving transplant that took eight hours.
She continued with IV feedings and vomiting until spring 2018 when she underwent a gastric bypass so her new intestines could carry her digestive load.
Today, Diana still struggles with nausea and vomiting. She will also be on anti-rejection medicine and steroids for the rest of her life, but the transplant has made a significant difference to her well-being.
Diana will forever be grateful to Heather for making that choice.
“I was so physically and emotionally exhausted, but now I have a future. I really got to feel all the love … of friends and family. I wouldn’t have a future right now. I wouldn’t be getting married without her,” she said.
In 2019, soon after Diana’s then-boyfriend proposed to her, she thought of asking Dan to attend her wedding not only as a guest but as one of the people who will lead her to the altar.
Diana’s wedding was beautiful and full of dancing, food, and people telling Dan about the good things they have heard about Heather and what she did to save Diana’s life.
“It was honestly everything I could have hoped for and more. It was filled with emotions and laughter and tears and overwhelming joy,” Diana said.
But despite the joy surrounding him, the wedding was “tough” for Dan, a single dad who raised Heather by himself since she was 1. He also has a 19-year-old son named Hunter. Dan misses Heather so much, and the pain of her absence still lingers. Still, he felt so honored to be able to walk a part of her at Diana’s wedding.
“I was very honored when she asked me about doing it,” he said. “I’ll never get that chance.”
Now that their story has gone viral, Diana hopes that more people will consider organ donation.
“Without Heather’s decision, I would not be here today. Death is a tragedy but transplant is a light of beauty in the midst of that tragedy,” she said.
Learn more about Diana’s story in the video below courtesy of Happily.
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