Dan Donnelly Jr. was unable to witness his daughter Heather Renee Donnelly walk down the aisle at her wedding. She was tragically killed in an accident just three days before she was due to marry her fiance.
But through Heather’s lifesaving gift of organ donation, Dan had the chance to experience what it would have been like when Diana Donnarumma, one of the eight people who received organ transplants from Heather, had her dream wedding in August 2021.
Diana, 28, was married at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Buffalo, New York. Dan walked Diana halfway down the aisle, making this an extra special event. Halfway down the path, Diana’s biological father, Glen, took over and escorted her the rest of the way.
“I try to carry on her spirit the best I can every day,” the bride said. “And I felt like I needed to – but also I wanted to – give her father the opportunity.”
Heather was on her way to a friend’s birthday party in October 2017 when she was fatally injured in a vehicular accident.
She was only 26 then and had just received her master’s degree in counseling months prior from the Texas A&M Corpus Christ campus. She wanted to work with kids.
“There were lots of kids at her funeral. It was unbelievable to see how many little children came from daycares all over the country. It was just amazing,” Dan recalled.
Dan didn’t know that Heather was an organ donor until he got to the hospital. He said her daughter’s organs saved the lives of seven other people.
Diana has been dealing with health issues since childhood. In 2016, she was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a debilitating gastrointestinal condition wherein the stomach can’t adequately push food further down the digestive tract. Her illness forced her into intravenous nutrition.
In October of the same year, a surgical team removed Diana’s colon, but it didn’t help.
She learned in September 2017 that she was on the transplant waiting list at MedStar Georgetown University in Washington. A hospital transplant team member called Heather the following month to inform her that they had organs available. Heather’s antibodies and blood type were a perfect match.
Diana received the donor’s small intestine and the right portion of her large intestine in a lifesaving transplant that took eight hours.
She continued to have IV feedings and vomiting up until spring 2018, when she had to undergo a gastric bypass. This allowed her new intestines to handle her digestive load.
Diana still suffers from nausea and vomiting today. Although she will continue to take anti-rejection medication and steroids throughout her life, the transplant has made a significant impact on her well-being.
Heather will always be remembered by Diana as a great friend and for her decision.
“I was so physically and emotionally exhausted, but now I have a future. 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 her,” she said.
In 2019, soon after Diana’s then-boyfriend proposed to her, she thought of asking Dan to attend her wedding not only as a guest but as one of the people who will lead her to the altar.
Diana’s wedding was beautiful and full of dancing, food, and people telling Dan about the good things they have heard about Heather and what she did to save Diana’s life.
“It was honestly everything I could have hoped for and more. It was filled with emotions and laughter and tears and overwhelming joy,” Diana said.
But despite the joy surrounding him, the wedding was “tough” for Dan, a single dad who raised Heather by himself since she was 1. He also has a 19year-old son called Hunter. Dan is still missing Heather deeply, and the pain from her absence still lingers. Still, he felt so honored to be able to walk a part of her at Diana’s wedding.
“I was very honored when she asked me about doing it,” he said. “I’ll never get that chance.”
Diana hopes that organ donation will be more popular now that their story has been shared worldwide.
“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,” she said.
Learn more about Diana’s story in the video below.
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