Becky Elzinga

Becky Elzinga, center, listens to her son’s heart beat in Bobby Nakihei’s chest during a gathering in 2017. Nakihei received a heart and kidney from Elzinga’s 20-year-old son. 

KENNEWICK, Wa. — Two families are grieving the death of Bobby Nakihei from COVID-19.

It's a deeply felt loss for the Nakihei family in Everett, Wash., but also 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 packing to head to Pullman to attend Washington State University in January 2017 when he suffered a brain aneurysm.

Parents Jeff and Becky Elzinga struggled with donating their son's organs after Justin's sudden and shocking death. But they agreed after they learned their son had signed up to be an organ donor.

"You don't know how thankful 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 life when he was 62 thanks to Justin's heart and left kidney, traveled to the Tri-Cities with his wife, Diana, seven months after the transplant to meet the Elzinga clan.

Jeff Elzinga couldn't bear to listen to the heart he'd first heard in his infant son, but Becky Elzinga used a monitor to hear the beat of her son's heart one more time. They shared the moment with Tri-City Herald readers in 2017.

The two families had kept in touch the last four years, making Nakihei's death Sunday, Oct. 3, hit even harder for the Elzingas.

"It's been a kind of rough couple of days," Jeff Elzinga said.

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 his heart and kidney were no longer working, she said.

But she took some comfort, after she stopped sobbing, in Robert Nakihei's message that the Elzinga family will always be "ohana," a word from the Nakihei's Hawaiian heritage that means family.

No match for COVID

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

"He was going strong," his son said.

Every morning he got up at 2 a.m. to take medications and then started work at the family restaurant, Bobby's Hawaiian Style Restaurant in Lynnwood, Wash.

He had been vaccinated against COVID-19, but his immune system was no match for the coronavirus after the transplant, his son said.

"The body can only do so much," he said.

The restaurant stayed closed last week. The family, including Bobby Nakihei's wife of 46 years, needed some time to grieve privately.

A table outside the restaurant filled with flowers and tokens as people learned of Bobby Nakihei's death.

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

Both Psalm and Robert work at the family restaurant, with their mother recently retiring and spending lots of time with her five grandchildren.

Transplant added years

Bobby Nakihei had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation in about 2000, a few 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 thankful to have more time with his family, but sensitive to the fact that his second chance came because Justin's life was cut short.

"It tore me up knowing that Justin was so young. I'm 62 going on 63, yet I have the chance to live even longer. We don't know why," Bobby Nakihei said then.

"I'm so grateful. I don't know whether I should call (the Elzingas) Mom and Dad. I'm older than them, but I have that legacy of their son in me. There's no way I could have had a 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 Hawaiian cooking to his son and daughter, as they urged him to retire from the restaurant and enjoy his life, Robert Nakihei said.

And he got to spend more time with his grandchildren, ages 2 to 11.

"Without those years, a few would not have a chance to know him," Robert Nakihei said.

Bobby Nakihei was "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 in the thoughts of the Nakihei family this past week.

"We are so in debt to that gift," Robert Nakihei said.

The Nakihei family is very close and the Elzinga family is grateful that Bobby Nakihei got to 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 prepared for them by Bobby Nakihei and his family.

Justin had a big personality and his charisma drew many friends who liked to hang out at the Elzinga house. His Kamiakin High classmates continue to visit the Elzingas, sharing with them the milestones of young adulthood — college graduations, weddings and new babies.

Justin Elzinga would have turned 25 next month.

The Elzingas had hoped that their son's heart and kidney would help Bobby Nakihei live a long and happy life.

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

He is healthy enough to hike and has a daughter, Becky Elzinga said.

Although Bobby Nakihei's life was cut short — when Justin's heart was only 24 years old — the Elzinga family has no regrets on donating Justin's organs.

Now Becky Elzinga encourages others to sign up to be an organ donor.

Services and a reception to remember Bobby Nakihei are planned Oct. 22 in Everett.

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