Heart transplant enables longtime MU volleyball fan to give back

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
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Nellie Dodd has been attending MU women's volleyball matches for 30 years. A heart transplant in 2006 has given her a second chance at life.

COLUMBIA — In 1995 Nellie Dodd’s heart stopped beating one afternoon at work.

Over the next 11 years she was in and out of the hospital as her heart continued to fail. She had a pacemaker put in and later a defibrillator.

Two things carried her through the tough time: God and volleyball.

Dodd began attending MU women’s volleyball matches in the 1980s and said she wasn’t prepared to stop because her heart was failing.

“I’d start getting ready at 8 o’clock that morning,” Dodd said. “It would take me the whole day to get my shoes on and get dressed. A person does not believe we can be in that situation. We shouldn’t take anything for granted because that could be us in the situation.”

Even though she watched from a wheelchair and had an oxygen mask over her mouth, as soon as a match started, Dodd turned into the same hollering fan she had always been.

“I remember even us as players looking up at her like, ‘She needs to sit down,’ because it scared us,” senior middle blocker Amanda Hantouli said. “We were just like, ‘Nellie, please don’t do anything stupid.'”

On Jan. 20, 2006, Dodd received a phone call from her doctor.

“They said they got a heart in for me, and it’s coming in on a Learjet,” she said. “I was really excited. I thought I got a chance to keep on giving back.”

After 10 hours of surgery, Dodd had a new heart from a cadaver donor after a successful transplant.

“I am just so thankful,” she said. “First of all I’m blessed. I know God gave me a second chance. And then to the person who gave me the gift, I can’t say enough. I try to make sure the gift goes on.”

Instead of crediting her strong will or relentless determination, Dodd thanked the volleyball team for her second chance at life.

“This volleyball program; the girls and the coaches and the team and everything, I just can’t say enough,” Dodd said. “There’s not enough words in the world to say how much they mean to me.”

Breaking the silence

Dodd said there aren’t enough words to describe how much the volleyball team means to her, but that doesn’t mean she won't try to find them.

A quick question to Dodd always turns into a conversation. And no matter what the initial topic, it always ends with MU volleyball.

Dodd has so much to say because she didn’t say anything at all for the first 22 years of her life.

“Nellie has a lot of making up to do,” Hantouli said.

Growing up, Dodd spent her free time working on the family farm. She started milking cows at 4 years old and climbed on the tractor at 5.

“I was very shy growing up,” Dodd said. “We didn’t meet too many people. We were too busy on the farm working and everything. Most people I met was at church.”

At home, Dodd would answer a question her father asked her and sometimes even respond to her siblings, but that was it. She refused to reach out and just talk.

At 18, Dodd moved to Columbia by herself. She got a job in nutrition and food services at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, but she was still virtually silent.

“If a doctor asked me a question, or a nurse asked me a question or a patient — because I always put patients first above anybody — I would then address them,” Dodd said. “As far as carrying on a casual conversation, I would not do that.”

When Dodd returned home from church every Sunday, she felt an obligation to teach her neighbors, who didn’t attend church, what she had learned. It was after four years of re-enacting sermons that Dodd finally overcame her fear.

“Now, haven’t you blossomed?” her neighbor quipped one Sunday afternoon, Dodd said. “Boy the Lord has sure brought you out of that little cocoon shell you’ve been in all these years. Now I can’t get a word in.”

Giving back

Throughout every home match Dodd wanders around Hearnes Center in her black-and-gold jumpsuit talking to anyone that will listen. Students, locals, players, coaches, cheerleaders, band members, Truman — everyone.

“Today in my life I can do more things than I could previously before,” Dodd said. “As my doctor here in Columbia said, I was dying real slowly for 12 years, and now I’m living.”

But schmoozing and cheering isn’t all Dodd does for the Tigers. In 2007, she was asked to become a member of the team and head a fan group called the Golden Tigers.

The group encourages senior citizens to come out to volleyball games by offering a free season pass, a T-shirt and weekly dinners.

“We are more than a spirit group because I see more things happen than just a volleyball game,” Dodd said. “Because those young ladies on the court, ... you get your mind off your own self, and you get your mind focused on what they’re doing. It makes you want to be like them even though you can’t get down there and play.”

By recruiting at churches, retirement homes, nursing homes and simply making cold calls, Dodd made the Golden Tigers a popular club.

“What she’s done with the Golden Tiger group has been amazing,” coach Wayne Kreklow said. “She started from scratch to have over 1,000 people signed up. She’s done it all by herself, one phone call at a time.”

Dodd has gone from being the girl who wouldn’t speak to the woman who won’t stop talking. She said she has gone from her deathbed to feeling more alive than ever.

And though she dreams of the Tigers winning a national championship, she’s happy to just be in the stands.

“Money can’t touch everything,” Dodd said. “Material is immaterial. Winning isn’t everything. Oh yes, it’s nice to win. But what’s more beautiful than anything is life itself.”


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