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A Co-Worker With a Gift
Kidney Allowed Boss 6 More Years

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

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.

Nearing admits that she worried about favoritism in the office. She would ask herself later, was the attention he paid her really "kidney time"? But Helms was widely known for being the comfort and consoler to his team. If she got an hour in his office to talk, he assured her that he did the same for others.

Over time, their friendship grew, and she maintained a close, private watch as his health improved. At least for a while.

Last year, though, he developed post-transplant lymphoma, brought on by the anti-rejection medication he took to sustain the donor kidney. To treat the lymphoma, Helms was forced to go on and off anti-rejection drugs. The donated kidney failed.

In January, Helms returned to dialysis, weaker than ever.

"He put up a real struggle, but I think we all knew the battle was being lost," said Jean Helms, who has three grown children.

Near the end, he yearned for what most people take for granted, starting with the ability to get to and from work without assistance. If he could make it through dialysis without being fatigued, he told his wife on Friday, that would be perfection.

But exhaustion hit as soon as the treatment was over. Returning to his home in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, he lay down for a nap. He never awoke.

Art "always said, 'I won't live to a ripe old age,' " said Robert Ritzmann, Jean Helms's father. "Jean knew it was coming, but we thought he'd have two, three, four more years," Ritzmann said, pausing. "His suffering is over."

Nearing was the only formal speaker other than family during Helms's service. True to form, her comments were not about the transplant or their unique relationship. Rather, she focused on the man who she said displayed those hard-to-find qualities that define the best people have to offer.

As for her donation, Nearing said she believes it was simply the right thing do. His family, however, mentioned her contribution in the death notice.

Over the years, she has questioned nothing about the value of her contribution or the good her kidney did for the Helms family. Lately, she's just wished everyone could have had more time with Helms.

"If [the kidney] could have been a little stronger somehow, that would have been good," she said, her voice suddenly full of doubt. "It could have worked a little longer."

Kidney donor Nancy Nearing, center, gets a hug from Jean Helms, the recipient's wife. At left is son William Helms.

Photographs of kidney recipient Art Helms are displayed for the memorial service at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria.

Art Helms died after six years with a donated kidney.

Barbara Ritzmann, left, looks on as her daughter Jean Helms, center, is comforted by kidney donor Nancy Nearing before the memorial service. "They're two remarkable people," Helms said of Nearing and her husband.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company