'I try to carry on her spirit the best I can every day. And I felt like I needed to—but also I wanted to—give her father the opportunity.'
Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 23, 2021. It has since been updated.
Daniel Donnelly Jr. never got to see his daughter, Heather, walk down the aisle. However, earlier in 2021, he got the chance to experience what it would've been like when Diana Donnarumma—one of eight people who received organ transplants from Heather after she died in a 2017 car accident in Texas three days before her wedding—asked him to walk her halfway down the aisle on her wedding day. "I try to carry on her spirit the best I can every day," Donnarumma told The Buffalo News. "And I felt like I needed to–but also I wanted to–give her father the opportunity."
The 28-year-old fought back tears as Donnelly led her down the aisle before handing her over to her own father, Glen, to escort her the rest of the way so that she could marry her husband, Conlan Kreher. "It was honestly everything I could have hoped for and more," Donnarumma said of her dream wedding at Salvatore's Italian Gardens in Lancaster. "It was filled with emotions and laughter and tears and overwhelming joy." Speaking to Daily Mail about the emotional moments she shared with her organ donor's father, she said: "Before I walked down the aisle with Dan, I felt butterflies in my stomach. When he first saw me in my wedding dress he cried. Once I saw him crying, I started crying."
"He misses Heather so much and struggles with the pain of her absence," she continued. "He said he was honored to walk me down the aisle and is so happy to have another daughter now. I told Dan, that Heather's spirit was there with us and she was happier than ever. We hugged each other before we went out. But I felt every emotion in the book: I was excited, anxious, sad about Heather, but, immensely happy that in a few moments I would marry the love of my life. I hope people can realize the power of 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."
"Transplant gave me the life that I never thought I would have. These decisions are vital. I ask that people think seriously about this. Don't make your family decide in the moment when they are grieving," Donnarumma added. She revealed that she has dealt with health issues since childhood, and in early 2016 was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a debilitating gastrointestinal condition that affects the normal spontaneous movement of the stomach muscles and the ability to adequately push food further down the digestive tract. The condition forced her to live on intravenous nutrition until she received a lifesaving transplant in 2017 when Donnelly died.
In a transplant surgery that took eight hours, Donnarumma received Donnelly's small intestine and the right portion of her large intestine. Although she still struggles with nausea and vomiting and will be on anti-rejection medication and steroids for the rest of her life, Donnarumma says it's a night-and-day difference from before the transplant. "I was so physically and emotionally exhausted, but now I have a future," she said. "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 [Heather]."
Heather Donnelly was reportedly on her way to a friend's birthday party in October 2017 when she was fatally injured in an automobile accident. The 26-year-old had received her master's degree in counseling months before from the Texas A&M Corpus Christ campus and had 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 daycares and everywhere. It was just amazing," said Dan Donnelly. Speaking of being asked to walk Donnarumma down the aisle, he added: "I was very honored when she asked me about doing it. I'll never get that chance."