Giving back: Transplant patient offers free housing

By Lisa Warshaw

Rodney DeBaun honors the man who gave him his new heart by providing housing for hundreds of organ transplant patients during the most trying times of their lives. 

Since receiving his new heart almost 20 years ago, Mr. DeBaun, of Grand Prairie, has devoted his time, energy, and money to assisting transplant patients and families in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Transplant recipients Randy Gideon (left) and Rodney DeBaun (right) worked together to design and build a Grand Prairie apartment complex that provides free housing to transplant patients and families. Rebecca Nicklas-Kelley (center) operates the David Nicklas Organ Donor Awareness Foundation, which Mr. DeBaun started in honor of his heart transplant donor.
Transplant recipients Randy Gideon (left) and Rodney DeBaun (right) worked together to design and build a Grand Prairie apartment complex that provides free housing to transplant patients and families. Rebecca Nicklas-Kelley (center) operates the David Nicklas Organ Donor Awareness Foundation, which Mr. DeBaun started in honor of his heart transplant donor.

Shortly after undergoing his own transplant, Mr. DeBaun was inspired to honor David Nicklas, his heart donor. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I had an incredible urge to do something remarkable,” Mr. DeBaun said.

For five years, he provided free air travel to out-of-state transplant patients with planes owned by the David Nicklas Organ Donor Awareness Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1995. Then Mr. DeBaun took his charitable giving to a higher level.

In 2000, to permanently endow the Foundation, DeBaun built Landings at Carrier Parkway, a Grand Prairie apartment complex that provides UT Southwestern Medical Center transplant patients and their families, along with other Dallas-area transplant patients, a free place to stay before and after surgery. 

“This is incredibly important for out-of-town transplant families,” said April Morgan, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Transplant Social Work at UT Southwestern. “Patients must live within a certain radius of the transplant facility in order to undergo both the pre- and post-operation processes. We continuously send patients to Mr. DeBaun, and he openly welcomes them to his facility as if he were welcoming the family into his own home.”

That kind of support is something Mr. DeBaun knows about first-hand. In 1993, he was fighting viral cardiomyopathy, inflammation of the heart muscle caused by a viral infection. Given just months to live without a new heart, he waited on the transplant list, determined to keep his damaged heart beating. 

As his spirits diminished, Mr. DeBaun received a hospital visit from Ken Johnson, an old friend, who brought along Lucky Bramlett, whom Mr. DeBaun had never met. After cheering up Mr. DeBaun for a couple of hours, the pair left.

Six weeks later, Mr. Bramlett’s grandson, David Nicklas, was killed in a motorcycle accident. In accordance with Mr. Nicklas’ organ donor directive, Mr. Bramlett requested that his grandson’s heart be given to Mr. DeBaun. As it turned out, the two were a perfect match.

“The Nicklases lost their son, brother, and grandson and [the family] donated his heart to me,” Mr. DeBaun said. “This is what a family that I didn’t even really know wanted to do for me.” 

Awestruck by their generosity, Mr. DeBaun and his wife, Isibelle, created the nonprofit Foundation to keep Mr. Nicklas’ spirit alive. 

The 280-unit Landings at Carrier Parkway apartment complex houses up to 10 patients at a time. Most patients and their families stay months, while some have stayed up to two years. Based on need, the Foundation also provides families with food and other necessities.

“I was fortunate while I was undergoing the transplantation process. Finances were not going to make my family homeless,” Mr. DeBaun said. “But in some instances, a family is barely making ends meet before this great medical tragedy falls upon them. I want to make their life as easy as possible so they can focus 100 percent of their time on getting well. If we can alleviate some of their stresses in this regard, our goal has been reached.”

The Landings at Carrier Parkway was designed by award-winning Fort Worth-based architect Randy Gideon, a friend of Mr. DeBaun. When Mr. Gideon contributed to the project, he had no way of knowing it would turn personal. Years later, pulmonary fibrosis compromised his lung function completely.

 “At the time I worked on the Landings project, I had no idea that I would be a transplant recipient,” said Mr. Gideon, who underwent bilateral lung transplantation at UT Southwestern in December 2011. “The chain of events has made the project very special to me. Our experiences, and working together for all these years, have made Rodney and I dear friends. We have a unique bond and a singular mission to give back in some way to the transplant community in gratitude for our own lives.”

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