Ryan Nelson and Matt Heisler were best friends as far back as they can remember. In countless photos, where you’ll find Ryan, you’ll find Matt. The two were inseparable, and shared the rare kind of friendship that would have lasted a lifetime. In many ways, that remains true.
“We grew up in diapers together, both of our dads were friends from way back in high school,” Nelson told KARE 11. “He was always at my birthday party and I was always at his.”
“I always looked up to [Matt] as an older brother.”
The two childhood best friends were students at the University of North Dakota, and shared a home together in Grand Forks. So when Ryan saw smoke pouring out of their home and Matt was still inside, he knew he had to do something.
His first attempt at reentry failed; the smoke was too thick and it forced Ryan back out of the house. That’s when he smashed the window to Matt’s room, climbed inside, and dragged him out. He performed CPR until paramedics could arrive on the scene and take him to the hospital.
“I just saw a bunch of smoke and freaked out and wanted to get him out,” Ryan Nelson said.
Sadly, Matt didn’t pull through. He passed away at the hospital as a result of smoke inhalation.
Ryan also needed medical attention, but when he recovered, he discovered that he’d be without the companion he’d faithfully relied on his entire life.
He was devastated, but found comfort in knowing that he’d done everything possible to save his friend. “Without friends, you have a lonely life,” Ryan said.
But his decisiveness and bravery didn’t go in vain. Because Ryan was so courageous, Matt was still able to have his request of being an organ donor fulfilled. Had he been engulfed in flames any longer, his internal organ wouldn’t have been viable for transplant.
People like Tom Meeks, a 71-year-old veteran in need of a heart transplant, were given another chance at life thanks Matt’s generosity as an organ donor, and Ryan’s attempt to save his life.
“I told Ryan he is my hero. He has no idea what he did for all of the people that was [impacted] by Matt’s decision,” Meeks said.
In total, Matt’s donation, and Ryan’s rescue attempt that allowed it to take place impacted nearly 60 lives. Meeks received Matt’s heart, but that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Matt’s liver went to a 61-year-old man waiting for 413 days, a kidney to a 46-year-old woman waiting 1,497 days, and his other kidney went to a 56-year-old woman waiting 1,467 days.
Countless other donations improved the quality of life of those in need, and saved their families of having to suffer through the grief of losing a loved one. Matt passed away, and his family suffered, but so many others were spared a similar fate because of his kindness.
As a result of Ryan’s bravery while trying to save his friend Matt, he was awarded the Carnegie Hero Award.
The Carnegie Hero Award is given annually to 18 recipients in the United States and Canada. The award recognizes extraordinary acts of civilian heroism, and is accompanied with a monetary reward.
Ryan was nominated for the award by Matt’s parents, who announced that he would be a recipient at the now annual Matt Heisler Charity Classic.
Jared Heisler, Matt’s father, said Nelson was reluctant to seek recognition for the rescue. But Heisler said, “There isn’t a more deserving person.”
Matt might not live on in a traditional sense, but his parents can’t help but be thankful for the silver lining in the tragedy. Matt helped impact the lives of so many people in a final act of heroism. He was loved, evidenced by his Ryan’s willingness to risk his own life to save that of his best friend.
“I know Matt would’ve done the same thing for me,” Ryan said. “He was a great person and a loyal friend.”