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Nerves ‘went away’ when he met the Tri-City mom of his heart, kidney donor

Justin’s celebration of life

Organ donor's family meets the man who received their son's heart and kidney.
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Organ donor's family meets the man who received their son's heart and kidney.

When Bobby Nakihei pulled up to the barbecue on Sunday, he was trembling.

Part of it was the medication he’s been taking since his heart and kidney transplant seven months ago.

Part of it was nerves. A big part. Nakihei didn’t know quite what to expect.

But as soon as he saw Becky Elzinga, the mother of the young Kennewick man whose sudden death in January gave him a second chance at life, “everything went away,” he said.

They hugged. She listened to her son’s heart beating in his chest.

“It was touching,” Nakihei told the Herald. “It was an experience — a very good experience. They’ll be family to us for life.”

Justin Elzinga died Jan. 5, after suffering a brain aneurysm while packing for spring semester at Washington State University in Pullman.

He was an organ donor, and his heart, lungs, kidneys and liver saved the lives of four people, including Nakihei of Everett.

After Justin’s death, his mother reached out to the organ recipients, hoping to share about her son and make a connection.

Nakihei responded back, and soon he and his wife had plans to drive across the mountains for Sunday’s barbecue in Kennewick.

Justin05
Justin's Elzinga's family gather for a photo with Bobby Nakihei, who received some of the young man’s organs after he died of a brain aneurysm. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

For Justin’s family, the meeting was powerful and healing.

“I just held my arms out and gave Bobby a big hug. It was an emotional day, but it’s a wonderful feeling. I’m just so happy and grateful that we could meet. It’s a wonderful thing,” Becky said.

Justin was a 2015 graduate of Kamiakin High School, who excelled on the field and in the classroom and was planning on a career in viticulture.

He was close to his parents, Jeff and Becky, to his brother, Cody Beenken, to his longtime girlfriend, Gabby Naccarato, and to many friends.

They’ve spoken of his magnetism, of his warmth and friendliness, of his wide, bright smile.

Nakihei, who was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation in 2000 and whose kidneys suffered from the long illness, said it was clear from Sunday’s barbecue that Justin was deeply loved.

I know he’s in a really good place now. I know he’s smiling and looking down on us. I can feel that he is shining upon us.

Becky Elzinga, mother

“I was blown away. So many friends were there. A lot of their families came, too. They all knew Justin well. I learned a lot about him,” Nakihei said. “That boy was incredible. I wish I could have met him in person.”

Becky said her family feels a deep bond with Nakihei and his wife, Diana — and Sunday’s barbecue was the first of what will likely be many more meet-ups down the road.

“We just love Bobby. I fell in love with him and his beautiful wife. They are wonderful people. We enjoyed our time with them,” Becky said.

And she feels certain that Justin would be glad to see the connection made, the comfort and joy that followed.

“I know he’s in a really good place now. I know he’s smiling and looking down on us,” she said. “I can feel that he is shining upon us.”

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald

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