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A Co-Worker With a Gift

Donated Kidney Allowed Admired Boss Six More Years of Life

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page B01

Nancy Nearing gave her boss Art Helms a kidney, a rare gift to a colleague who was suffering.

For six years, she demurred from the compliments and thanks that accompany such a gesture, becoming close with Helms and his family. When he wasn't eating, she brought him brownies in the hospital to stimulate his appetite. When his family needed support, she was there.

Barbara Ritzmann, left, looks on as her daughter Jean Helms, center, is comforted by Nancy Nearing before the memorial service. "They're two remarkable people," Helms said of her husband and Nearing. "It takes the kind of person he was to attract that kind of gift in the first place." (Photos Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

But sometimes the most generous gifts aren't enough.

Art Helms, 56, was laid to rest yesterday, and so, too, was a part of Nearing.

"They're two remarkable people," said Helms's wife, Jean, 52, her voice choked with emotion. "It takes the kind of person he was to attract that kind of gift in the first place."

Nearing, 47, said Helms's death can't shake the bond they shared. She extolled her former employer and friend as a man who managed his workplace team of contract employees at the Federal Trade Commission with compassion and inspired others to give back. When Helms became seriously ill from polycystic kidney disease in 1998, forcing the removal of both his kidneys, it was employees on his computer programming team who came forward with support.

Not with flowers or sympathy cards but with offers of their own organs.

At the time, organ donations made by someone other than a spouse or other relative were rare. By an employee to a boss -- among the most unusual. While the transplant did not prove to be the hoped-for long-term solution, it gave Helms six more years of life and forged a friendship that made headlines for its unusual workplace altruism.

His family and friends and co-workers from past and present gathered yesterday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria to mourn a man they lauded for bringing laughter and compassion into their lives.

It was as much a tribute to a man who never let illness stop him from reaching out to others in need. Friends said that generosity explains why others reached back when it mattered most.

"It's not so much the gift of the kidney but a reflection of who Art was that he would touch someone like that," said Heather Strang, who worked with Helms at the time he received the transplant.

That "someone" was Nearing, an Arlington mother of two. Throughout their working relationship, Nearing knew that Helms was on dialysis three times a week. But his announcement to his staff in 1998 that he was going to lose both kidneys was a stunner, she said.

Nearing wasted little time making her offer of a kidney, persuading Helms to at least let her get tested to see if her organ was compatible. Helms was resistant.

But by the time doctors removed his kidneys on July 14, 1998, they weighed a total of 50 pounds. His health was worsening. He and his family decided to accept Nearing's offer.

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