To mark the beginning of National Donate Life Month, Mid-America Transplant — the organization that facilitated the recovery of Dakota Cogdal's kidneys and subsequent transplantations — honored Hannibal Regional Hospital and the Cogdal family with a pair of medals.

The first call Melissa Cogdal received after the funeral for her 26-year-old son Dakota was from Wendy, a transplant coordinator at Mid-America Transplant.

Despite such unimaginably difficult circumstances, Wendy shared good news with Cogdal and her family: the procedures went well.

Doctors had successfully transplanted kidneys recovered from Dakota’s body into two patients in vital need of the organ. It was the first time organs had been recovered from a patient that had entered Hannibal Regional Hospital’s Operating Room.

In the middle of grief over burying her son, Cogdal said she felt a sense of peace — a sense of comfort knowing that Dakota, although no longer here, had given the gift of life to strangers.

“What a perfect moment. What a hero. What a gift he not only gave his recipients, but gave his family,” Cogdal said. “Because in the midst tragedy, something so beautiful happened and that gives you so much comfort and peace when you’re losing somebody like your 26-year-old son.”

To mark the beginning of National Donate Life Month, Mid-America Transplant — the organization that facilitated the recovery of Dakota’s kidneys and subsequent transplantations — honored the hospital and the Cogdal family with a pair of medals.

Through tears, Cogdal accepted the Gift of Life Medal, but gave the credit to her deceased son.

“We think it’s important for everyone to know that this was Dakota’s choice,” she said, surrounded by the nurses and other staff members that tended to Dakota prior to his death on Sept. 20, 2017. “We were just following his wishes.”

Mid-America Transplant serves 84 counties in eastern and southern Missouri, southern Illinois and northeast Arkansas. The organization reported a record year in 2017, with 718 lifesaving organs recovered from 223 individuals, including Dakota Cogdal.

Kevin Lee, Mid-America Transplant’s vice president of community engagement, shared heartfelt words of appreciation for the Cogdals and the staff at Hannibal Regional.

“Your efforts together saved two lives though kidney transplants at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Thank you for being part of that,” Lee said.

One of the recipients is an adult man with children. He and Cogdal have spoken over the phone.

He’s doing well, Cogdal shared — afforded a new lease on life thanks to Dakota’s decision. She hopes to speak to or meet the other recipient some day.

Knowing two lives were saved, as well as the constant support of her family’s transplant coordinator and the nurses at Hannibal Regional helped bring comfort during the situation. Cogdal said many of the nurses were at her side through the entire process, both at the hospital and during the visitation and funeral.

Cogdal said she wasn’t surprised by Dakota’s decision to become an organ donor. Cogdal’s 21-year-old nephew is on dialysis and in need of a kidney transplant. Plus, “he (Dakota) was just a good-hearted person.”

Mid-America Transplant deals regularly with tissue and eye donations from hospitals and funeral homes, but recovering an organ is far more complicated, according to Tammy Doyle, Mid-America Transplant hospital services specialist.

Doyle said only one percent of the population will have a recoverable organ to donate. Most cases, she says, are from patients who die as the result of a brain injury, but who have otherwise healthy bodies.

Such was the case with Dakota, who literally donated life to people he would never meet.

“When we look across the community, we look at three types of heroes: we look at veterans, we look at first responders, and we look at organ, eye, and tissue donors,” Lee said. “Those who sacrifice for a complete stranger.”

The visitors from Mid-American Transplant unfurled a large flag, a gift to Hannibal Regional promoting organ donation. Dakota, like many in the state, signed up to be an organ donor when receiving his driver’s license.

The entire experience has made Cogdal rethink conversations about organ donation. Most families don’t think to discuss organ donation. Few want to ponder what should happen in the event of an unexpected death. She hopes that not only will people make the decision to become a donor, but to make that decision known with family.

Dakota’s choice made Cogdal’s decision much easier after his death.

“When you’re in the face of tragedy, it’s hard to make decisions like that, but the pride of having a hero in the face of losing someone you love definitely does bring comfort and joy to your heart,” she said.

Anyone can sign up to become a donor by visiting .

Reach editor Eric Dundon at .