- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

HOWARD, S.D. (AP) - As a nurse, Elizabeth Blankenfeld has made a professional commitment to helping people.

Now, she’s made a personal vow to do the same.

Blankenfeld has been deemed a match to donate a kidney to her former high school principal and former Howard School Superintendent Mike Cullen, who has been undergoing dialysis and is need of a kidney transplant.

“She’s just my hero,” Cullen told The Daily Republic (https://bit.ly/1Krzhk1 ). “I get upset with people when they say that our kids aren’t motivated or just don’t care about people like they used to. She’s being so generous and helpful and I can’t ask for anything more.”

Cullen, who retired earlier this year as superintendent and secondary principal of Howard Public School, was diagnosed in 2012 with Berger’s Disease. The autoimmune disease has caused Cullen to lose kidney function, which has progressed to a need for a transplant.

The transplant surgery is scheduled for Aug. 24 in Sioux Falls. Cullen has been on the transplant list for two years and his match was made in July.

Before Cullen’s eight-year stint at Howard, he was the principal at Elkton High School, where Blankenfeld went to high school and graduated in 2006. Now a nurse living in Grand Forks, North Dakota, she saw a TV segment about Cullen and looked into helping out her former teacher.

“I saw that his blood type matched mine and I figured I might as well try,” she said. “Turns out I’m a perfect match.”

Strict criteria about autoimmune diseases meant many of his family members couldn’t help Cullen out.

“None of my family was able to give back because we have sort of a muddy gene pool,” he said, noting that his grandfather was adopted.

But both Cullen and Blankenfeld had an O-positive blood type, giving the match a chance. Cullen has dialysis three times a week, which is usually a four-hour procedure each time.

Blankenfeld, 27, said she’s not nervous about the surgery.

“It feels pretty awesome. I don’t have the words really to put in into perspective,” she said. “You do this work of being a nurse and it’s the destiny of every nurse to help people but I had never thought of being a living organ donor.”

Blankenfeld is a registered organ donor and she’s seen family members fight kidney ailments. She’s seen the power of living donations.

“I’m so excited to get the word out, because I feel like a lot of people just don’t know they can do this,” she said.

Cullen is confident about the upcoming surgery. Provided everything goes well, he’ll be monitored for six weeks in Sioux Falls.

“You feel a lot of different things, whether it’s being anxious or thankful or blessed,” he said.

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