Carnegie Medal awardee attempts to save best friend

carnegie hero awardee
Carnegie Medal awardee Ryan Thomas Nelson, right, and Sam Roth, center, were college roommates of Matthew J. Heisler, who died as the result of a house fire last year after being pulled from the smoke-filled structure by Nelson. Heisler was an organ donor, and Tom Meeks, left, received his heart.

He couldn’t save his oldest friend, whose heart hasn’t stopped beating

carnegie hero awardee
Friends from early on: Ryan Thomas Nelson, left, and Matthew J. Heisler as boys and as young men.
carnegie medal awardee
Ryan Thomas Nelson, left, and Matthew J. Heisler as young men.

Not only were Ryan Thomas Nelson of Eagan, Minn., and Matthew J. Heisler of Lakeville, Minn., roommates at the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, they were best friends “since before we could talk,” according to Nelson, a Carnegie Medal awardee.  Further, their fathers grew up together as best friends—and still are—and both also went to the university and roomed together.

The younger men’s bond remained secure in the early hours of March 16, 2014 when Nelson returned to the small off-campus rental house they shared with two others and found the structure aflame and filled with smoke.  Knowing that Heisler was alone in the house when he left earlier that evening, Nelson screamed for him, but it took only a few steps past the front door for him to realize that he was about to pass out in the thick smoke.

Retreating, Nelson circled to the rear of the house, broke out a window to Heisler’s bedroom, and entered, but he soon discovered Heisler was not there.  He dove out the window, returned to the front door, and re-entered the house.  The smoke was clearing somewhat, allowing Nelson the sight of Heisler lying unconscious on the living room floor.  Nelson quickly removed Heisler from the house and worked to revive him although by then Nelson was suffering from smoke inhalation himself.  Both men were taken to the hospital for treatment.  Nelson was not detained there, and he fully recovered.

Heisler died the next day.  His father, Jared Heisler, said Nelson’s actions “enabled our family and friends to say goodbye to Matt, which was a huge comfort after such a tragedy.”  He nominated Nelson for the Carnegie Medal, and the award was approved by the Commission at its June 25, 2015 meeting.  Jared announced the award the following day, at the second annual Matt Heisler Scholarship Golf Classic.  Nelson got a standing ovation, “and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Jared said.

“I don’t remember the heat of the fire or anything too descriptive about it because I was worried about one thing, and that was Matt,” Nelson told the Hero Fund.  “Matt was the kind of kid that would drop everything for his friends, and he always had my back.  He always fought for what he believed and he touched so many lives.”

Many lives.  The phrase was prophetic:  When Heisler was 16, he decided that if life was ever taken from him, he wanted to be an organ and tissue donor, and he indicated that on his driver’s license.  After his death, his heart, kidneys, liver, and corneas were given to six people, and tissue, bone, and skin grafts benefitted 50 or more others.  Vietnam Veteran Tom Meeks was the recipient of Heisler’s heart.  Eight months after the fire, the Heilser family met with Meeks and his wife…and got to hear Heilser’s heart beating once more.  The emotional meeting was filmed and aired by NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.   

“Knowing that Matt is still helping people, as he did during his time here on earth, is a comforting feeling,” Nelson said.  “Matt had the biggest heart in the world, but it hasn’t stopped beating.  His eyes haven’t stopped seeing.  His organs are now part of someone else’s body, keeping that person healthy and living a normal life.”

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