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Hastings woman left legacy of friendship, creativity, joy

Rena Menard died at the age of 27, just a few weeks before her birthday. She had lived the last few years in Africa. Submitted photo

Rena Menard, a 2004 graduate of Hastings High School, was the sort of person everyone considered a friend. When she died, just a few weeks short of her 28th birthday, it sent a ripple of shock and loss that affected thousands of people around the world.

Throughout the illness that ultimately took her life, there were people across religions from several different countries praying for her recovery. Even the Vatican had her on its prayer request list. In the six weeks her family had maintained a CaringBridge page, the page gathered about 20,000 hits.

Rena’s family understands perfectly why so many people felt influenced by her.

“She just impacted people,” said her mother, Lonnie.

People she had met only once attended the visitation with story after story about how Rena had helped them or changed them in just a short amount of time. Her family described her as funny, creative, loyal, smart, stylish, caring, socially conscious and affectionate. She made up games, like one where she challenged her mother to run full-speed around a shoe store several times and give at least 10 high-five’s in the process. She often pushed her family to talk about a high, a low and a surprise they experienced on any given day, an exercise that made them look at their day differently.

“She just made everybody better,” said her father, Ray.

After graduating from HHS in 2004, Rena went on to study fashion design in college. But that field gave way to music business. She was always looking for a creative edge, Ray said.

“She just had fun with her life,” Adriel said.

Moving on to Africa

For the past three and a half years, Rena had been living in Tanzania, taking occasional visits home to Hastings. Her relocation there was, in part, because of her father’s work.

Ray owns a non-profit organization in Tanzania that works to help spur economic development, helping to build businesses that can lift people out of poverty and drive the local economies there.

At first, Rena went there as a travel partner for her grandmother, but when she saw what the organization was doing, she decided she wanted to be a part of it. So she put her business degree to work, starting first as a volunteer and eventually working her way up. Before her illness, she was managing most of the organization’s operations in Tanzania, Ray said.

Even in her work, Rena’s personality won people over at every turn. She could just as easily have a conversation with a president or CEO of one of their partner companies as she could with the poor farmers they were there to help, Ray said.

It was in Tanzania that Rena met her boyfriend, Jerry Diaz. They first met at a restaurant, he said, where they talked a little. The next day she showed up with her father at church, and after that, they started growing their relationship.

Illness and miracles

Rena’s family and the doctors who cared for her over the last few months can’t say for sure what caused her health to decline. At first, she had some flu-like symptoms, Ray said. With time, she started feeling better and was regaining her strength. That was in May this year.

Then, they started noticing some red flags – one was that Rena didn’t seem to be thinking clearly. Her family already knew that she wasn’t the type to talk much about her illnesses. She had battled typhoid, malaria, sepsis and other illnesses in the past and never once complained. So when Jerry called Rena’s parents, concerned about her condition, they knew things had gotten bad.

From that point, her illness escalated quickly. On May 22, they decided to get Rena back home to the U.S. where she could get better health care. By the time Ray met her on May 24 to get her on the plane, her skin was yellow, her abdomen was severely distended and she was extremely weak.

Her condition gave the airline pause, and she almost wasn’t allowed to fly out of the country. Jerry was the key in getting all the paperwork and doctors’ assurances that Rena could fly. It was a miracle that she was able to leave the country, her family said.

The 9 1/2 hour overnight flight to Amsterdam was “horrible,” Ray said.

“(Her condition) was getting worse so fast.”

After they arrived in Amsterdam, she collapsed in the airport. She stopped breathing and her heart stopped, Ray said. They were able to revive her and get her to the hospital, where they found her blood pressure had completely collapsed and her liver had failed.

Rena was transferred to Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, where doctors determined she needed a new liver within 24 to 48 hours. She was put at the top of the Eurotransplant organ donor waiting list, and within five hours they had a match that was only one hour away.

The surgery itself was a risk; Rena was given less than a 30 percent chance of surviving the procedure because she was so weak. Then, five minutes after surgery started, they found out she also had sepsis all over her body, which was breaking down her nerves, muscles, organs, and the tiny blood vessels called microcapillaries. Had doctors found the sepsis before surgery, Rena would not have gotten the transplant.

The next miracle was in Rena’s survival. She survived the surgery. Next she had to survive the treatment of the sepsis, which prevented doctors from administering the medications usually used to help a body accept a transplanted liver. Her blood test numbers were off the charts – so high that her doctors couldn’t understand how she was still alive.

“But she maintained,” Lonnie said.

Through it all, Rena’s heart kept pumping and her brain continued to function. For eight days, her new liver kept working through all the infection. The day it started to show signs of rejection, doctors got bloodwork back showing Rena was finally in the clear.

From there, it was a bright road toward recovery. Her doctors and nurses fell in love with her, Ray said. She was making jokes. She was getting stronger, doctors were just about ready to close off the stoma from her tracheostomy and Rena’s family was making plans to get their home ready for Rena’s return.

Overnight July 31, however, Rena was affected by one final blow. She had an unexpected massive brain hemorrhage that took her life.

It didn’t seem connected to anything that had come before, Lonnie said, and that, perhaps, was the worst part.

“I could’ve accepted so many things,” her mother said. “But not this.”

“We’re still reeling,” Adriel said.

After the loss

Although they don’t understand why it happened, Rena’s family is confident that it’s all been part of God’s work.

“It’s built our faiths and the faiths of many, many people,” Ray said.

To honor Rena’s memory, the family held a party after her funeral, because Rena always hated formality. They closed off the street by their east Hastings home, invited those who knew her and celebrated her life.

Still, the family is just getting to start their grieving process. Rena’s funeral was last Saturday, and up until then, the family had kept so busy with all the arrangements that they hadn’t had much of a chance to grieve.

That’s changing this week, as “process” fades.

“She just was so amazing,” Lonnie said. “It’s so hard to lose such an amazing person.”

“She was the best person I’ve ever met,” Jerry said. “... I will miss her a lot.”

A memorial video for Rena has been posted online. It can be viewed at