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'Hallie is the hero': Daughter of Mahnomen-Waubun football coach waiting for kidney transplant

Mahnomen-Waubun football coach John Clark and his daughter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Hallie Clark is waiting for a kidney transplant. Submitted photo

Hallie Clark took a deep breath before answering the question. Most of her breaths are deep these days, as she spends 10 hours each day on dialysis, which she handles herself.

Hallie was asked what she wants to do with her life.

She turned 21 less than three months ago and recently discovered a love of photography, but the question made her pause. Doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of living through her first night in this world. The kidney her mother gave her when she was 1 year old is beginning to fail.

"Just live it," Hallie said. "I want to find my purpose. I want to share happiness and hope. I guess I just want to live."

Hallie will be roaming the sidelines at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday. She'll be taking pictures of the Mahnomen-Waubun football team in the Minnesota Class 1A state championship game against BOLD. After the game, win or lose, Paul Clark, her uncle and M-W assistant coach, will find her on the field, hug her and ask her if she got any pictures of him that make him look 15 pounds lighter.

And 12 days later, on Dec. 6, Paul is prepared to give his kidney for Hallie.

"I'm not the hero in this story," Paul said. "Hallie is the hero."

The first fight

Jackie Clark wasn't able to hold her daughter for the first time until two weeks after she was born. Hallie was the first child for Jackie and Mahnomen-Waubun head football coach John Clark. When she was born, John said it was eerie because she was blue and wasn't crying. She was born a month early via an emergency cesarean section.

"You could tell by the hustle and bustle of the doctors and nurses that something wasn't right," John said.

Hallie was taken to a hospital in Fargo because she wasn't breathing properly, while Jackie stayed in the hospital in Detroit Lakes, Minn. Jackie was allowed to see Hallie once before she was taken away. Doctors told John to go home and rest, but all John could think about was the possibility of having to tell his wife their little baby girl wasn't going to make it.

"When I got home I told myself that both of our families were bull-headed and stubborn, so she'll fight through this," John said.

Paul was playing football at what is now Minnesota State Moorhead in 1997. He was parked by the phone, waiting to hear something from his older brother after his mom had called him sounding "a little crazy." John eventually called him, sounding in shock. He kept repeating that Hallie was going to be OK.

After a few months in Fargo, Hallie was sent to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's hospital.

"It was more or less a miracle," John said. "She was on an incubator, she had wires and hoses all over her body. Somehow they kept her alive. She had a lot of close calls where she was code blue or code red or whatever, but somehow she toughed it out. When she was sent to the U of M we thought she might have a chance."

Paul's entire life for the next few months entailed class, football practice and trips back and forth to Minneapolis to see Hallie. Hallie would return the favor 12 years later when she'd visit Paul in the hospital after he was in a car accident. His hip was shattered, but when she'd walk in the hospital room he'd realize he was lucky to be alive and his pain would eventually go away.

"We're lucky to have her alive," Paul said. "She's the most fun-loving girl you'll ever meet in your life. The only time she is fighting with anyone is with her little brother. I think she knows how precious life is. In a lot of cases, it doesn't work out this well. Even when she's hurting, not feeling well, she has the most positive attitude you can imagine."

Doctors in Minneapolis diagnosed Hallie with polycystic kidney disease, which causes kidneys to enlarge and lose function over time. Hallie was born with adult-sized kidneys. that needed to be removed. Jackie gave Hallie one of her kidneys without hesitation.

"We were actually lucky we lived in a state with good health care," Jackie said. "U of M would do the transplant on babies. Not all states would. I think, as parents, looking from the outside in you think it's horrible, but when you're inside you just do what you have to do. There's no normal. Your normal is what you have to do. This is our normal. As a parent, you just do it."

The nurse told John that the procedure was a miracle. Hallie didn't have an artery needed to connect with Jackie's kidney, but Dr. John Najarian found another artery to use.

"She told me if it was any other doctor they would have had to cancel the procedure and my wife would've wasted a kidney," John said. "And Najaria was a really big guy with these giant hands with sausage fingers, so I have no idea how he did it. I wish some of my football players were as tough as Hallie."

They were told Jackie's kidney would last at most 12 years. It lasted 20.

'It's a miracle'

Hallie couldn't look at her mom. She knew she'd burst into tears if she looked at her face. The two were 20 minutes into their four-hour drive back from Minneapolis in October. They had gone to Minneapolis for final checkups to make sure Hallie was good to go for a kidney transplant three days later. She was ready.

She had been on a waiting list for a couple years. No one in the family was a match, so Paul agreed to be part of a kidney paired exchange program, meaning he would give his kidney to someone he matched with somewhere in the country in exchange for someone giving their kidney to Hallie. After many blood tests and a psychological test, which John jokes he's surprised Paul passed, Paul's kidney was supposed to be headed to Cincinnati.

"There was no decision," Paul said. "If you saw what she goes through, you'd know. It's the little things. She loves the lake and swimming, but she can't do that on dialysis. She can't even put her foot in the water because of bacteria. There was never a doubt in my mind that I'd do it."

They were 20 minutes out from Minneapolis when Jackie and Hallie received a phone call. The person receiving Paul's kidney in Cincinnati did not pass their checkup. And, to make sure neither party gets a kidney and backs out on the exchange, the procedure was pushed back to Dec. 6.

"It was silent," Hallie said. "No one said a word for awhile. We just sat there."

Stairs and walking blocks are tiring for Hallie. She'd like to go to college, but simple things like a cold have a far bigger affect on her than the average person. Jackie played volleyball, basketball and golf in high school and John played basketball and football, coaching both for Mahnomen-Waubun. Sports are a huge part of the family's life, but Hallie couldn't continue to do sports because of her disease.

She found other ways to be part of the team. She'll be on the sidelines Saturday. She'll overhear some of the interesting words her dad uses toward the referees and report back to her mother with a giggle that Paul adores.

"It's the most distinct giggle you'll ever hear in your life, and she loves to snitch on us," Paul said. "It sounds like a loon. But you can't get mad at her. You never can get mad at her because of her personality and her love of life."

Paul's favorite part of this season, the first football season of the Mahnomen-Waubun co-op, wasn't the fact the Thunderbirds are undefeated and in the state championship. Without the co-op, he'd be coaching Waubun and John would be coaching Mahnomen. His favorite part is getting see Hallie on the sideline.

On Saturday, he'll see her on the sideline. Every once in awhile, especially at milestones like graduations and birthdays, he'll think about how close he was to never getting a chance to meet her.

"You just thank God it wasn't her time," Paul said. "I'm so thankful she was able to stay with us a little longer."

Hallie may not have an answer to what she wants to do with her life, but she knows what life means to her.

"It's a miracle," Hallie said. "I can't really describe it because, especially this last year, I'm coming up on a year on dialysis. I have those moments where I think about how I'm not supposed to be here right now. There's obviously a reason why I'm here. I think it's to share my story and show people there's hope. Good things can happen."

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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