By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald
CEDARBURG – “Hug your children. Enjoy today because we live such a short time on this earth. If you don’t get everything done today, that’s OK.”
These are messages of wisdom from Dale and Karla Georgeff who understand the importance of hugging a child, and spending time with them instead of getting the latest toy or gadget.
The Cedarburg family and members of St. Francis Borgia Parish will never hug their 14-year-old daughter Lexi, again. Lexi died June 29, 2005 in the late evening hours. Her bright light was snuffed out, but she lives on in the animals she loved, the school she attended and in the other children at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital. The L4L Foundation, an acronym for Love for Lexi assists.
Lexi lives on in a legacy of love for others. She was an animal lover and a vibrant student who, since birth, suffered from a condition known as Chronic Neuropathic Intestinal Pseudo-Obstruction, which meant her intestines didn’t function and her stomach could not accept food.
Lexi died during a multiple-organ transplant three years ago and stunned thousands of individuals who had rallied to help her when she needed a new stomach, liver, intestines and pancreas.
While the condition was apparent at birth, the Georgeffs made sure Lexi lived an ordinary life with her older siblings Michael and Jenny. Aside from a few of her closest friends, no one knew there was anything wrong with her until she became ill.
“We went years without hospitalizations primarily because my wife was so incredibly good about taking care of Lexi,” Dale said. “Then we had times when Lexi would develop an infection or had to have a revision of a surgery – she had 30 surgeries in all. Then she would spend weeks in the hospital.”
Her indomitable spirit came from Dale and Karla treating her the same as their other children. Dale continued to coach sports teams for Michael and Karla participated in Jenny’s activities.
“She was a great kid,” said Dale of Lexi. “She loved to read and go to school. She had her first Communion like any other kid and she loved animals – she had four dogs and a parrot.”
When Lexi became sick and treatments were not effective, doctors told them it was time to plan for the multi-visceral transplant, a surgery unavailable in Milwaukee.
“The Pittsburgh hospital seemed to be the best option for Lexi, but we only had a six-hour window to get her there once the organs became available,” Dale explained, “so we thought about moving out there so we would be near, but our friends wouldn’t let us and they all began raising money so we could take her there.”
Pink L4L plastic bracelets became the rage at Webster Middle School as students donated cash to support their Love for Lexi, hoping that she would soon be well enough to return to class. Cookie sales, roller skating events, T-shirt sales and other fund-raisers helped provide funds to hire a private pilot to take the family to Pittsburgh.
Twice the family flew to Pittsburgh as the first donor organs were unsuitable for transplant, but the news only wove the community of supporters closer together. Plans were made for a major fund-raiser sponsored by the L4L Foundation, called Wings of Hope, to provide funds for the second trip, housing and food expenses.
“She died before this event happened,” Dale said. “But when we were setting things up, we asked her what she wanted to do with the money, if there should be some left over. She felt it should be donated back to the kids at the hospital, her school and to the humane society and that is what we did.”
Held June 21, Wings of Hope in Cedarburg featured more than 30 bands, silent auction, games, Karaoke, and food donated from various restaurants. Next year’s event will be June 20 and Dale is planning for a main entertainment headliner, pig roast, volleyball tournament, and a Harley-Davidson riders poker run.
In Lexi’s memory, the foundation donated more than $25,000 to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin for gastrointestinal research; learning modules, books and smart boards to Webster Middle School, as well as several hundred dollars for the humane society. The Georgeffs hope the annual event will grow and help more people each year, including those needing money for transplant flights.
Although the family still grieves for Lexi, Dale believes that they are starting to get back into the rhythms of life. In addition to a strong faith, close marital and family bond, they find the strength through the L4L Foundation.
“She was very brave and a better person than I am,” he said, choking back tears. “But we miss her terribly and I know a lot of this will be good for someone else. Everybody that had helped us with the first Wings of Hope are now sitting on our board … and all but one of them are people we went to school with in Cedarburg years ago.”
While it is important for the family to keep Lexi’s name and her legacy alive, most important to them is to show their appreciation for all the people who prayed for them, who donated, who visited, and those who worked at Children’s Hospital.
“It is a great hospital and we received so much support from everybody, from the people who cleaned the rooms to the doctors we had,” he said. “It was 14 years and we made some very close friends during that time.”
The Georgeffs spend more time together as a family now, taking short trips and stepping back to look at their lives. Dale grounds himself with normalcy by continuing to coach youth football, this time with his son, Michael, by his side.
“That is unique and wonderful,” he said. “Another thing that is unique are the friends who not only were there for us in the beginning but continue to stand by us now. A lot of people want to help you when stuff happens and later everyone goes away. People need to realize that it is important to keep calling and keep visiting. We had a lot of people that did this for us and it really helps.”