VINTON, Iowa – One of Crystal Ellis’ long-held dreams was to skydive.
After years of eye troubles that left her without vision in one eye, she finally received a donated cornea in 2005. Once the lengthy healing process finally ended, she arranged to make the jump Saturday, the day after her 29th birthday.
And when she finally touched down in the landing zone at Paradise Skydives, Inc., there was a big surprise waiting in the landing zone: Misty Troester, the mother of her cornea donor.
The two had been in contact via letters and Facebook over the years, but had never talked on the phone or met in person. Ellis invited Troester to her skydive, but Troester was vague about whether she’d make it. She wanted it to be a surprise.
“I’m excited but nervous,” Troester said beforehand. “…She’s just a beautiful, beautiful girl. [Ellis is] the same age as my oldest daughter and the connection almost feels like she’s one of mine.”
In 2005, Troester’s 5-year-old son Jarren Ray Moser was accidentally run over by a firetruck and killed while playing on a scooter near the Guttenberg Fire Station.
Troester said “the love of Jarren’s life” was anything to do with fire trucks and firefighters. The little boy frequently wore a fireman’s hat, boots, and t-shirts with firetrucks on them. The day he died, he had set up what he called a “fire truck parade” in their Garnavillo, Iowa, living room with his toys.
“It was so hard to put that away,” Troester said of her active little boy who made friends with everyone, including their garbage man. “…I think after the accident, I realized he was my little man, he was my protector. He was so much more grown up and caring and loved being involved with people.”
When she and Jarren’s father, Paul Moser, got a call from the Iowa Lions Eye Bank asking if they would consider cornea donation for two recipients, Troester reassured Paul, who she said was initially “unsure.”
“I told him that if the table was turned and we were the parents waiting, I would hope the parents would make the decision to do that,” she said, adding that they chose to write each recipient a letter through the Eye Bank.
Two years later, Troester said she was overwhelmed when she received a letter back from Ellis. The two kept up communication through letters and Facebook for the past six years.
Ellis shared her story. In Jr. High, while working as a wrestling manager, Ellis most likely contracted a virus from cleaning the wrestling mats, her stepmother, Marge Ellis, explained. In a short amount of time, Ellis lost vision in the eye.
She shared with Troester through letters that skydiving was a dream of hers, and when she invited her to attend, Troester decided to make it a surprise.
Waiting on the landing field on Saturday afternoon with her 7-year-old daughter Emily and her aunt, Troester stood anxiously with flowers and a gift for Ellis as the 29-year-old breathlessly landed a few yards away.
At first, Ellis walked toward her other family members, a wide smile on her face. Then she recognized Troester. Her mouth dropped open in shock and the two women leapt into a long, tearful embrace.
As the two hugged, laughing and crying, family members stood nearby. Ellis’ mother, Renee Bock, tearfully remarked that her only daughter now had “even more family members.”
Once off the landing field, Ellis’ striking green eyes shone as she talked of their meeting after the skydive she had waited so long to complete.
“I thank their son every day, and I realize I can do something every day because he gave me a part of his life,” she said.
She said even something as small as a cornea changed her life. She said she wouldn’t have been able to graduate from Mount Mercy College with a degree in Biology without the donation.
“I know that [Troester’s] already a part of my family,” she said. “They’re like my little extended family.”
Both Troester and Ellis said today was just the beginning of an even closer relationship.
Ultimately, Troester said she hopes sharing their story can encourage more people to become organ donors. The choice, she said, helped give Ellis a better life and helped her family heal.
“It helps knowing a part of your child was able to help somebody else,” she said. “But probably the biggest gift back to us as parents is the gift of hearing from [Ellis] and how appreciative she is. That’s so heartwarming. It helps us to deal with our grief…it’s a journey all on its own.”