From tragedy comes a gift of life, then 2 Woman’s legacy brings families together
SOUTH BRUNSWICK— Keith Varney drives with a picture of Michelle Bocknack tucked into the sun visor of his Honda Civic.
It’s a memorial card, marking the death of the woman who gave Varney life.
“There’s not a day that I don’t at least think about her at some point,” the 35-year-old Palmyra, Pa., man said.
Bocknack, 22, of South Brunswick fell off a second-floor motel balcony in North Wildwood on June 2, 2001, in a freak accident.
Michelle Anne Bocknack, 22, a student at Middlesex County College who died as a result of a fall off a balcony at the hotel in North Wildwood in 2001.
The gymnastics instructor and Middlesex County College student, who worked as a secretary at the Middlesex County Board of Taxation, died the next day.
A day after her death, Varney was freed from the worst of the cystic fibrosis that had begun to devastate his body.
Bocknack donated her organs to five people. Varney got her lungs. The 10th anniversary of the surgery that saved Varney’s life passed yesterday. But Bocknack gave Varney more than just 10 years of health.
Varney’s wife Jessica gave birth to twin boys on May 12.
For Bocknack’s family, the babies have provided a living link to her. “When I held those boys, it just got a hold of me,” said Michelle’s father Michael Bocknack. “I just got weak in the knees.”
The fact of their birth was satisfaction enough for Michael Bocknack, but he also appreciated the coincidences.
The boys originally were due on June 3, the anniversary of Michelle’s death. The fact that they were twins made perfect sense to Bocknack. Michelle has a fraternal twin sister.
Bocknack recalled speeding home from a golf outing in Reading, Pa., to see the birth of his daughters. He headed in the other direction to visit the Varneys. “I don’t call them coincidences, but blessings,” he said.
The boys are Caden Keith and Dylan Mitchell, Dylan’s middle name in honor of Michelle. They were conceived through in vitro fertilization, necessary because of Varney’s health problems. “It was the third and final try,” Varney said.
Maureen Bocknack, Michelle’s sister, felt strong ties when she held the healthy baby boys. “I just felt connected to them,” she said. “Had she lived, Michelle would have wanted a family. I tell people they are like my new nephews.”
Eileen Mazzei, Michelle and Maureen’s mother, said when she heard news that Jessica Varney was expecting twins, she felt like it was planned to be that way.“You never really get used to her being gone,” she said. “But I really felt she was there.”
“You never really get used to her being gone,” she said. “But I really felt she was there.”
Michelle and Maureen Bocknack grew up in Kendall Park with their mother and grandmother. The girls’ parents divorced when they were 9.
Michelle Bocknack took to gymnastics, amassing blue ribbons and trophies, Maureen Bocknack said. Michelle competed at North Brunswick Township High School, which both girls attended. “She was always doing handstands and poses,” Maureen Bocknack said. “She really loved it.”
She recalled her sister as an active, spirited woman. “She never knew when to stop,” she said. “She was always busy, always living life and always there for everybody else.”
Michelle was a devoted blood donor. She shocked her family when she told them one day in the kitchen in her mother’s Kendall Park home that if anything ever happened to her, she wanted to donate her organs.
“My mother said, “Why are you telling me this?” Shouldn’t we be talking about me donating at my age?’ ” Maureen Bocknack said.
That conversation took place not long before Michelle Bocknack’s death.
The fatal fall took place when Michelle Bocknack was in North Wildwood for an Elks convention with her boyfriend, Michael Barrood. He approached her to kiss her and she fell, according to reports at the time. Barood tried to grab her, and fell also, suffering a broken foot, the reports read.
Maureen Bocknack, 32, and the mother of two, keeps Michelle’s memory alive on her Facebook page. On it she has posted her favorite sister’s favorite quotation: “Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened.”
Varney’s cystic fibrosis was diagnosed at birth. The genetic disorder affects breathing, digestion, reproduction and other functions of the body. Despite that, he managed to remain active as he grew. He played soccer and lacrosse in high school, but the disease worsened during his college years at West Virginia University. He withdrew from school because of his health.
At the age of 21, at the end of 1997, he was placed on a waiting list for a lung transplant. His health had deteriorated to the point where he needed oxygen at night and used a feeding tube 16 hours a day. He scheduled his days around his limitations in getting up and down the stairs. Time was running out.
When the call came telling him he topped the waiting list for a double lung transplant, Varney was shocked, he said. Things don’t always go smoothly with transplants, he recalled reminding himself. He heard from others awaiting organs that operations were sometimes halted just after a patient was prepped.
The stars were aligned for Varney on June 4, 2001. His and Michelle’s proximity to Philadelphia where the transplant occurred was key because of the narrow window of time for a lung transplant. Varney is slight of stature. Michelle, who was 5 feet 1 inch tall, was the right match.
After the operation, he noticed the difference immediately. “It was easier breathing, easier talking,” he said.
Varney felt more than thankful. But his emotions were complex. “There was a little bit of pressure, too,” he said. “I have this gift, but I don’t want to waste it.”
And he had wondered who was responsible for it. He wrote Michelle Bocknack’s family a five-page letter and finally met them in July 2003 at an event hosted by the NJ Sharing Network, a nonprofit organ procurement and advocacy group.
Varney went on to graduate from The Pennsylvania State University where he played on an adult ice hockey team. He now works as an athletic trainer at Hershey High School in Hershey, Pa.
The loss of his daughter will be with Michael Bocknack for the rest of his life, he said. He has not reached that last point of grief, he said: acceptance. “I’ll never walk her down the aisle. I’ll never hold her again,” he said. But he draws some solace from the lives his daughter saved.
“I stand a little taller, I am a little prouder,” he said. “What she did was heroic.”
Michael Bocknack always wears something green, he said, the color symbolizing organ donor awareness. “It’s been put upon me,” he said. “I think it’s sort of obligatory, that you should help.”
He has supported others going through the same grief and struggle.
“He’s become very active helping other families,” said Mary Ellen McGlynn, a manager of family support programs for the NJ Sharing Network.
The family has learned only so much about the people who received the organs. But Michelle Bocknack’s gift of life went far. A 59-year-old man from New Jersey who was married and had two adult children got her heart. Michelle’s right kidney went to a 62-year-old man from California, married for 39 years with three adult children. A 43-year-old Pennsylvania woman, married with an adult child, got her left kidney and pancreas.
A then-55-year-old woman from Keyport, Marty Pentz, received Michelle’s liver. She met Michael Bocknack only three years ago.
- “I was very, very fortunate because I would have been gone in two days without Michelle,” Pentz said. “She was there for me at the right time.”