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Organ donation connects two ‘Tiger’ families living many states apart

Charmaine Colby

A web of friendship, augmented by social networking and Tiger pride, brought a ray of comfort into a local family’s tragedy. It’s a story that played out online, watched by friends, family and dozens of Northwestern High School alumni.

“The emotions involved, all of us just sat there and cried,” said Christy Potthier Poppe of Rice Lake. “I’m so proud of everyone for all they’ve done.”

“It’s an amazing story,” said Linnette “Linny” Bowker of Bennett, one that starts with her younger sister. Charmaine Colby of Maple was a 1986 Northwestern High School graduate, a “Tiger,” with a streak of youthful enthusiasm.

“She was a kid at heart,” Bowker said. Colby was still spinning cartwheels and climbing trees at the age of 45. A free spirit, she loved country life, her animals and her family, especially her children.

“She was my rock,” Bowker said. “She had such a positive attitude on life. She had a smile on her face through everything.” The Maple woman also made it clear to her family that she was an organ donor.

“She always said ‘If I could save one live when I die with a piece of me, that’s what I want to do,” Bowker said

When the unthinkable happened and Colby suffered a brain aneurism followed by a stroke, her wish was honored.

“She was a giver all her life,” Bowker said. “She gave and gave and never expected anything in return.”

In a twist of fate, the Maple woman’s liver was donated directly to the husband of a former high school classmate.

Bowker posted on Facebook about her sister’s condition and that she was an organ donor. Beth Collette-Gilbert heard about it from another Northwestern alum, Becky Brill. Gilbert’s husband has been suffering from liver damage caused by hepatitis C, including cirrhosis of the liver, for years. One doctor even told the couple he would not live to see 2014. The week before Colby’s death, Bart had been put on the transplant list in Memphis, Tenn. Brill contacted Gilbert, but she knew her husband was too far down the list to get Colby’s liver, unless it was directly donated. So she contacted Bowker and asked.

“I’ve lived in fear for so long I would lose him at any moment,” Gilbert said. She knew the family was grieving, but she was frantic. Making the call, she said, was the hardest thing she had ever done.

“I welcomed it 100 percent,” Bowker said. “It was just like Char was with us telling us, ‘This is what I want, why I had to go.’ It’s a comfort to us to know a piece of her is living in him.”

Colby’s liver was a perfect match for Bart. Transplant surgeons from Memphis flew into Duluth for the liver last Tuesday, in the midst of a snowstorm. Bart went into surgery later that morning.

“The way it all fell together was so miraculous,” Gilbert said.

It was a textbook surgery and her husband was named a star patient by his doctors. He was out of the ICU within days but returned over the weekend due to low oxygen levels. The new liver is doing well, and oxygen levels were going back up as of Monday.

“He’s actually doing really well,” Gilbert said.

The Gilberts and Colby share many common threads. Not only was Gilbert a year behind Colby in high school, but she and her husband love the outdoors, canning, gardening and cooking. They routinely rescue dogs, at one point having 15. And they have deep affection for all their animals, including the chickens.

 “It’s hard to lose people you love,” Bowker said. “It makes it easier to know it helped someone else out … We lost her but she lives in others.” Not only did Colby’s gift impact the Gilberts, but her pancreas, heart valves, corneas and more were given to others … up to 60 lives affected in all.

The story of Colby’s donation inspired Poppe to start a gofundme site, “Lets get Linny to Beth & Bart’s.” In three days she had raised more than $2,000 to fly Bowker and Colby’s daughter, Ashley, to Memphis to meet the Gilberts.

“I just thought it would be really neat if Linny could go and meet Bart,” said Poppe, who graduated from Northwestern High School with Bowker. “She said she’d love to, that she already felt a connection.” Any money not needed for transportation costs will be split between the two families.

The liver transplant took place on April 1, the first day of National Donate Life Month. Colby’s family sat with her while she was on life support waiting to donate.

“We just held her hand and told her we loved her, were proud of her,” Bowker said. “Her choice to give is something to be proud of.” She left doing what she did best, the Bennett woman said, giving of herself.

Bowker and Gilbert encouraged others to offer the gift of life by signing the back of their driver’s license and letting their loved ones know they want to be donors.

“I’m an organ donor,” Bowker said. “If I wasn’t sure before, I am now.”

The gofundme site can be found online at