Transplant Brothers

A transplant brother,

I have seen many posts around social media concerning the “transplant brothers”. I have personally known Gordon Veldman for many years and wanted to share my stories and experiences with the man. It cannot be over stated that this man has led one extraordinary life. I first meet him when I was a child, somewhere between the ages of eight to twelve. Our meeting was not out of chance. Gordon and his then wife were dear friends of my mother, and she was concerned with my safety. See, I was building an internal combustion potato cannon out of PVC and for some reason she thought Gordon would be able to talk me out of it. This plan backfired, and lead to his influence through the years of encouraging me into activities which more than likely led to my mother’s graying hair. Nearly twenty years later, that hasn’t changed.

Sailing mostly…

Gordon was an avid sailor, always has been that way. Through out his life a good portion of it had been spent on a boat. I would here recounts of the adventures the time on his boat the Just Dandy, a 26-ish foot sloop. They ranged from the many close encounters with adverse weather, South American drug smugglers, to a drunken marine, and those are a few of the many. Gordon was once shot while in Wisconsin by a marine home on leave, who decided to use anchored boats as target practice. This was the first time he made national news. If you were to get him started on the story, he will gladly pull out the news paper clippings, photographs, and the wound itself. But that is how Gordon is, and how he has always been. He has all these adventures cataloged away, right at his fingertips to pull out at the drop of a hat. You want to know about Antarctica,? you will have hours invested in slide shows and movies and stories about his recent trip, on a sailing vessel of course. Gordon cataloged the entire trip, not only of his own photos and videos, but that of a majority of the passengers’ as well.

Gordon has always had different philosophical ideals, mostly emphasizing the concepts of personal freedom, peace, and sharing. In his life he is apart of many verbal agreements to share his property and that of others. The deal typically is along the lines of; I would like to borrow your trailer from time to time, in exchange for access I will take the time to perform maintenance on it. Which at first struck me as odd, but it completely makes sense. I have one or two items loaned to him, and they have been meticulously cared for over the years. For Gordon, caring for items, particularly mechanical ones is a hobby and a favorite pastime. Every visit I make to his home, there are another half dozen new projects scattered around, and the ones present previously are either completed or returned to their place. Once it was an antique music box, a large antique music box. This is one of his prized possessions because the manufacture process of this style has become a lost art. He bought it on Ebay, fixed it up, and polished the brass drum. Mind you, the drum is the rotating piece which has thousands of fragile pins sticking out of it. Gordon has always been about finding solutions to simple and complicated problems.

The story…

Gordon Veldman transplant brothers portrait

March 2014, two months before the transplant. Click for larger image.

Once such project was Segways, he bought a few broken ones and created a couple completely functional ones. This project was undertaken towards the height of his medical complications. See, Gordon was diagnosed with a condition called Alpha-1. Which was undetected for 70+ years. Essentially this is a protein deficiency which affects the lungs mostly. The protein is responsible for maintaining the elastic properties of the lungs. Lacking this essential protein, over the years Gordon’s lungs had started to decay; this continued to the point that they had become leather like. Imagine a rubber band, past its prime and no longer capable of contracting. This caused Gordon to have only 20% or less of his available lung capacity. So Gordon needed a way to get around, obviously Segways were the answer. Living on the outskirts of the small town of Pentwater, Mi he was able to drive the Segway downtown to participate in the numerous social organizations he belonged to. I believe he even participated in a parade with the contraption, he may have been dressed as a pirate. Now, I cannot remember when Gordon was diagnosed with Alpha-1, but it was heart breaking news. Nobody really knew what to do, including Gordon. It seemed to change his outlook on life, understandably of course. He had always lived on a frugal budget, it was a way of life for him. It seemed as if he was getting into an “end of life” mentality and started trying to live his life to the fullest possible extent in the shortest possible time frame. For a time he was spending his savings on science toys. Gordon has always been a fan of the science and spent a lot of time performing physics demonstrations at the local elementary schools. It seemed that he was trying to return to those days again.  This change in lifestyle was depressing to watch, as he was seemingly prepared to give up. There once was a moment where, in his giving nature he attempted to give me his Pentwater home. It was hard to know when he was serious, one of the complications of his medical issues was chronic hypoxia (low blood oxygen content). As you can see in the photo, which was taken a couple of months before the transplant surgery Gordon is displaying cyanosis, a sign of hypoxia indicated by paleness and a bluish tint in the mucosa. When I initially published the image I had done so in black and white, so that he would not be reminded of the condition when he saw it. Around the time of the photograph Gordon and I rode a couple of his Segways into downtown Pentwater for dinner. I had herd stories from him about the difficulties of movement, and activity; but the stories did not give enough credit to the disability he was experiencing. Now, Gordon’s garage is a mere 50 feet from his house. It was hard to watch as he needed to rest before, during, and at the end of the walk he was so tired that we had to sit and talk for twenty minutes before mounting the Segways and heading into town. I had only briefly ridden one before, and the comical end to this trip was one of the confounded machines breaking down at the restaurant and I had to return to the house to fetch the vehicle. Oh, well.

Deck talks…

Gordon Veldman transplant brothers portrait

A hummingbird approaches Gordon’s feeder.

Gordon Veldman transplant brothers portrait

An orchid in Gordon’s greenhouse.

The main stage for our conversations always seemed to be the back deck. It was a metal and wooden addition to the home which Gordon had designed himself. It was a metal grate on a home-made truss system. In the warm months we would sit outside, usually enjoying a batch of home-made bloody Mary mix. While we watched the hummingbirds come and go from the feeder attached to the railing. Gordon always mentioned how happy they were, dancing and playing because they had so much free energy, and since there was no need for them to conserve energy we could watch them play. This is fine and dandy until a squabbling pair almost ran in to the side of my face. We would sit there, usually with my dog Bear, and have discussions ranging from clock mechanics to rocket-propelled what-nots.  The deck over looks the river, and most summers the Just Dandy sits just off shore on her mooring. The past couple years its spot has been vacant, which being a primary passion was quite unsettling. Above the deck there is a rope twisted around a tree branch. I remember that it was attached to a board, and hung just a couple of feet above the ground. Gordon would take delight in pulling the rope up to the deck and swinging on it way out over the roadway hundreds of feet below. Now retired, what remains of the rope is affixed to a dieing tree branch.  The deck being over the back yard is close to the fish pond which runs right up against the green house. Three more of Gordon’s seemingly endless passions, because inside the greenhouse is a wood fired sauna. The green house like most things, were of Gordon’s own design. With an entire wall of windows reclaimed from some project elsewhere, facing to the south it captured a lot of heat. This two overlooked the river. Being filled with books, plants, and a large fish tank which would normally house the fish in the winter. Between the deck and sauna, which was slightly down the hill, there is a small backyard surrounded by fascinating plants and other objects. Above the greenhouse there is a giant metal palm tree, which Gordon commissioned from a local artist. But it was the deck which was always the center of conversation. It was getting into the first half of 2014 when Gordon’s morale was starting to dip low. He was enrolled in Spectrum Health’s transplant program, and on the waiting list. Initially it was a bright light at the end of a tunnel, but that tunnel was seemingly getting longer and longer. Gordon’s depression was worsening and worsening. I was making it a point to try and visit every week or two as finances and time constraints would allow. The morbidity of our talks almost had me to the point where I was thinking of moving into the lower level of his home for the time being, but he had disappeared.

Gordon Veldman transplant brothers portrait

Gordon’s sauna room.

“It” happened…

We had planned to meet on day to extract the spring driven mechanical movement from an antique Victrola. I had arrived in Ludington and attempted to contact Gordon, without any luck. I did not hear from him for somewhere around a weeks time when I either started calling Spectrum looking for him, or he called me. For the past few months Gordon would only refer to the transplant operation as “it”; if “it” happens, when “it” happens, “who will I be after ‘it’?”. He had a worry as to who he would turn into after escaping death with the odds stacked against him. In this case the odds almost won. He described to me the painstaking process which the surgeons had to go through to remove his lungs. Remember the rubber band analogy from earlier,? ever had on which was worn out and adhered to what it was wrapped around? Gordon’s surgery was complicated by the necessary scrapping which was required to remove the scraps of lungs attached to the inside of his ribs and other organs, including the ascending aortic artery. But he was out of surgery and immediately feeling better. One of his biggest complaints being that the medical staff didn’t trust him to eat, understandably because of how the surgery affects the epiglottis, or the flap which prevents food and liquid from entering your trachea. So some time went by as Gordon was staying in Grand Rapids to remain close to the surgeons and medical staff. Then he was home, we meet for the first time on the deck a month or two after the surgery. As usual he had many many stories about the experience. The difference in his mentality and appearance were vastly different from the last time I saw him. Another month later I meet learned the story of his transplant brother, Fred Nelis. That the two of them suspected that they received organs from the same donor. I also learned halfway through our visit that Gordon was expecting Fred for dinner that very evening.

The Hug…

This would be the first time that Fred and Gordon had seen one another since the surgeries. When Fred arrived they hugged, which was a wonderful way to reunite the organs and the life force

Gordon Veldman transplant brothers spectrum health portrait

Fred Nelis and Gordon Veldman.

which was currently sustaining them. We all stayed out on the deck as they exchanged recovery stories as well as the trials they were going through. I learned that the lung transplant was a rougher road to recovery they a heart transplant. Gordon who was still learning what he could do, and having to be extremely cautious in his day-to-day life verses a Fred who was swimming laps at the local pool. The portrait to the right is of Gordon and Fred. You can see in stunning contrast the improvement in Gordon’s condition. Since that day his improvement has been by leaps and bounds. Gordon is talking about sailing again, he recently returned from a trip to Vegas. Life is looking up, and he is continuing to live it to the fullest.

Since then…

I do what I can to keep in contact with Gordon. Since the transplant I have relocated further north and a drive to Pentwater now takes most of four hours. He called me last night to inform me that he had “gone viral”. What else can I expect from a man so extraordinary?

Scroll down to see before, and after slideshow.


About the author:

Joe Clark is an experienced photographer, photo-educator, firefighter, EMT, and owner of Glass Lakes Photography LLC; a northern Michigan based photography service.

Please check out our services and still life galleries.


  • Gordon Veldman transplant brothers portrait
    Pre-transplant

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