A student’s heart gave a Washingtoner a second chance at life, then COVID cut it short

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Annette Cary / Tri-City Herald

KENNEWICK, Wa. – Two families mourn the death of Bobby Nakihei from COVID-19.

It is a heartfelt loss to the Nakihei family in Everett, Washington, but also to the Kennewick family, who knew their son’s heart continued to beat in Bobby Nakihei’s chest.

Justin Elzinga of Kennewick was a healthy 20-year-old who went to Pullman to study at Washington State University in January 2017 when he suffered a brain aneurysm.

Parents Jeff and Becky Elzinga struggled to donate their son’s organs after Justin’s sudden and shocking death. But they agreed after learning that their son had signed up to be an organ donor.

“You don’t know how grateful we are,” Bobby Nakihei’s son Robert told the Tri-City Herald.

Justin Elzinga’s heart, lungs, kidneys and liver saved the lives of four other people.

Bobby Nakihei, who got a second chance at his life at the age of 62 thanks to Justin’s heart and his left kidney, traveled with his wife Diana to the Tri-Cities seven months after the transplant to meet the Elzinga clan.

Jeff Elzinga couldn’t bear to listen to the heart he first heard in his young son, but Becky Elzinga used a monitor to hear her son’s heartbeat again. You shared the 2017 moment with the readers of the Tri-City Herald.

The two families had kept in touch for the past four years, which hit Nakihei’s death on October 3 even harder for the Elzingas.

“It’s been a tough couple of days,” said Jeff Elzinga.

Becky Elzinga said she cried when she received a message from Bobby Nakihei’s son Robert.

It was almost like reliving her son’s death, knowing that his heart and kidney were no longer working, she said.

But after she stopped sobbing, she found solace in Robert Nakihei’s message that the Elzinga family will always be “ohana,” a word from the Nakihei Hawaiian heritage that means family.

No game for COVID

Bobby Nakihei was fine after the transplant, Robert Nakihei told the Tri-City Herald.

“He was strong,” said his son.

He would get up at 2 a.m. each morning to take medication and then start working at the family restaurant, Bobby’s Hawaiian Style Restaurant in Lynnwood, Washington.

He was vaccinated against COVID-19, but his immune system was unable to cope with the coronavirus after the transplant, his son said.

“The body can only do so much,” he said.

The restaurant was closed last week. It took the family some time to grieve privately, including Bobby Nakihei’s 46-year-old wife.

A table in front of the restaurant full of flowers and tokens when people heard of Bobby Nakihei’s death.

This week, his many friends who have become customers “can stop by and hug. We’ll be here,” his daughter Psalm said in a video posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Both Psalm and Robert work in the family restaurant, their mother recently retired and spending time with her five grandchildren.

Transplant added years

Bobby Nakihei was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation in 2000, several years before Justin Elzinga was born.

Bobby Nakihei said in 2017 when he visited the Tri-Cities to meet the Elzinga family months after his transplant that he was grateful to have more time with his family but sensitive to the fact that his second chance was coming because Justin’s life was cut short.

“It tore me to know that Justin was so young. I’m 62 and I’ll be 63, but I have the chance to live longer. We don’t know why,” said Bobby Nakihei.

“I am so grateful. I don’t know if I should call (the Elzingas) mom and dad. I’m older than her, but I have her son’s legacy in me second chance if it wasn’t for Justin. “

The Nakihei family had more years to make memories thanks to the transplant.

It gave Bobby Nakihei more time to teach his son and daughter his Hawaiian cuisine as they urged him to retire from the restaurant and enjoy his life, Robert Nakihei said.

And he was able to spend more time with his grandchildren, ages 2-11.

“Without these years, some would not have a chance to get to know him,” said Robert Nakihei.

Bobby Nakihei is “a true man of God” and he often told people that Jesus loved them, his son said.

Now Bobby Nakihei and Justin Elzinga can “meet in person, their heavenly person,” said Yvonne English, Bobby’s sister-in-law.

No organ donation regrets

The Elzinga family has been on the Nakihei family’s mind for the past week.

“We are so indebted to this gift,” said Robert Nakihei.

The Nakihei family are very close and the Elzinga family are grateful that Bobby Nakihei can spend more time with his family, said Becky Elzinga.

In 2018, the Elzinga family, including Justin’s brother Cody Beenken, and some of Justin Elzinga’s many friends traveled to Lynnwood for a Hawaiian feast that Bobby Nakihei and his family had prepared for them.

Justin had a great personality and his charisma attracted many friends who enjoyed staying at the Elzinga house. His Kamiakin High classmates continue to visit the Elzingas and share with them the milestones of young adulthood – college degrees, weddings, and new babies.

Justin Elzinga would have turned 25 next month.

The Elzingas had hoped that the heart and kidney of their son Bobby Nakihei would lead to a long and happy life.

The Elzingas do not know who received Justin’s right kidney and liver, but they have corresponded with a man in San Francisco who breathes with Justin’s lungs.

Becky Elzinga said he was healthy enough to hike and has a daughter.

Although Bobby Nakihei’s life was cut short – when Justin’s heart was only 24 years old – the Elzinga family have no regrets about the donation of Justin’s organs.

Becky Elzinga is now encouraging others to sign up as organ donors.

Services and a Bobby Nakihei memorial reception are scheduled for October 22nd in Everett.


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