BISMARCK, ND — Elizabeth Blankenfeld just earned her master’s degree in nursing from the University of Mary. Her daily job as a nurse at Altru in Grand Forks and 15 months of online courses finally paid off. The Aurora, SD, native took part in the hooding ceremony and happily accepted the iconic wooden commencement plaque in recognition of her achievements.

Alone, it’s a tremendous accomplishment for anyone. But that is not what overwhelmed her with emotion and tears of joy on graduation day. There was another reason to celebrate. Not only did her immediate family come to graduation and take part in Blankenfeld’s big day, but Mike Cullen as well, the former principal at her high school in Elkton, SD.

In 2012 Cullen found out he had Berger’s Disease. The autoimmune disease caused Cullen to lose kidney function. After being on the transplant list for two years Cullen’s prayers had finally been answered. Providentially, with less than a year to live, the perfect kidney match would come from one of Cullen’s former students at Elkton High School who also happened to be his son, Adam’s, friend — Elizabeth Blankenfeld.

Elizabeth Blankenfeld pictured with her former principal, Mike Cullen, after the hooding ceremony.

Elizabeth Blankenfeld pictured with her former principal, Mike Cullen, after the hooding ceremony.

“When I found out that I was a direct match, I found a little box that said ‘let’s do this!’ on the top and filled it with kidney beans and made a little flip book of body parts and the last page was a kidney,” recalled Blankenfeld. “He called me and we were both crying on the phone. He then said to me, ‘are you sure you want to do this? You’re young and have so much life ahead of you.’ I knew I was sure.”

That is because their friendship went all the way back to 2003 when she started high school and became friends with Adam. She recalls her and some friends struggling in advanced math. So Cullen created a new class for them to take so they could learn the math, and he also helped Blankenfeld with AP college classes to prepare her for nursing. “He was so fair and helpful to students and someone who I looked up to during school,” she said.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, many people who need transplants of organs and tissues cannot get them because of a shortage of donations. Of the 123,000 Americans currently on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant, more than 101,000 need a kidney, but only 17,000 people receive one each year. Every day 12 people die waiting for a kidney. Neither Cullen nor Blankenfeld wanted to add to those statistics.

“When Mr. Cullen and I checked in to the hospital the day before the surgery, I gave him a letter and told him that I expected him to be at my graduation with my kidney,” she explained. “Not just be there, but be there healthy and feeling completely different than he did prior to his surgery. Mr. Cullen loves education and I know he is so happy that I have continued my education.”

“She’s just my hero,” Cullen said in an interview with The Daily Republic newspaper in Mitchell, SD. “I get upset with people when they say that our kids aren’t motivated or just don’t care about people like they used to. She’s being so generous and helpful and I can’t ask for anything more.”

While Cullen and many others would call Blankenfeld a hero, she certainly doesn’t look at herself as such, despite giving Cullen a second chance at life. In fact, it goes deeper than that for this country girl who says God, her faith and lots of prayer played a huge part in her decision.

“I remember reading a Bible verse from Luke leading up to the surgery that really helped me know I made the right decision,” added Blankenfeld, whose cousin also went through a successful kidney transplant after suffering from a rare disease that destroyed her organs. “John answered by saying, ‘anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ That doesn’t specifically say kidneys, but if you have two and don’t need two, it fits the verse.”

Blankenfeld remembers wanting to be a nurse her entire life. She chose the University of Mary because of the strong nursing program and the servant leadership qualities it teaches — a perfect fit for nurses, aspiring nurses or anyone looking to get into the health care field. It’s obvious Blankenfeld continues to live those values today — personally and professionally.

“Helping people and taking care of others has always been something I’ve loved doing and knew that I wanted to continue doing this with my entire career,” said Blankenfeld, who plans on getting her doctorate as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. “I found that I loved working with children and adolescents and also psychiatry.”

Graduation brought together Blankenfeld and Cullen for only the second time since the transplant, and it more than fulfilled the request she made to him on the day of the surgery.

“The change I saw in his energy and physical appearance was just amazing and he said he was feeling awesome,” said Blankenfeld, of her encounter with Cullen at graduation. “It was just so great to see. I have had no problems since the transplant and felt like it really helped me become healthier as well. I have become focused on my health and actually ended up really getting into the routine of exercising and watching what I eat and have lost 60 pounds since the surgery. I always tell the Cullens that the transplant saved my life too.”

In higher education, it is uncommon for students to graduate with distinction, or, Latin honors like magna cum laude or summa cum laude when getting a master’s degree. If one were to be given, it’s safe to say Blankenfeld would rank at the top of her class.