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An Inspiration from Day One: Terri’s Story

Terri Opp was a young woman who died while waiting for a heart transplant. The LifeSource Golf Classic continues in Terri’s memory to support education about organ and tissue donation.

As parents, we do whatever we can to support, nurture and encourage our children; trying to making things better. For Jim and Marilyn Opp, that was certainly true. 

Terri’s first heart surgery, an arterial shunt placement, happened when she was just five days old; it was repeated when she was eight. Born with a three-chambered heart, neither Terri Opp nor her family would let a congenital heart defect keep her from living a full and active life.  

Her sisters, Debbie and Becky, describe themselves as the “bookends” with Terri sandwiched in between them. Debbie recalls Terri as the one who found ways for the family to volunteer together around Thanksgiving. She was often “the instigator.”  

Jim and Marilyn encouraged Terri to approach her challenges with a positive, can-do attitude, and she did. Despite health challenges, Terri was a vibrant, active young person. She enjoyed time with friends, rode her bike and lettered in volleyball as a team manager.   

Marilyn – Terri’s mom – described a time when Terri was younger, and she and friends had been swimming at the nearby lake.  Because of the many surgeries she’d experienced, she had a visible “zipper scar” on her chest. That afternoon, Terri came home in tears because some of the kids teased her about the scar. Thinking quickly, Marilyn grabbed a marker and drew a zipper pull at the top of her scar; and then, she encouraged Terri to go back and ask her friends if they “could top that!” Terri laughed, and went to rejoin her friends at the beach. Years later, nephew Riley, who was born after Terri died, had a zipper tattooed over a scar on his ankle in honor of his aunt. When he showed Grandma Marilyn the tattoo, he said, “that’s for Terri.”  

As a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in International Business, Terri pursued two simultaneous career paths: the first in customer service at 3M and the other as a Mary Kay consultant.  

“Terri’s work family was so important to her, and they became important to us too,” commented Debbie. Her work family included:

  • Gayle Garrison and her husband, Bob, met Terri in 1992, after relocating to Minnesota as part of a 3M department consolidation.
  • Celeste Hughes, who organized a variety of events for the Customer Service department of about 25 colleagues and their families.
  • Rick Tonjes and Mark Steenberg were 3M colleagues who were an important support to Terri during those final months. 

Their team bonded and became very close. They have all continued to stay connected to Terri’s family through the golf tournament. 

In her mid-twenties, Terri’s health deteriorated to the concern of her medical team, family and co-workers. She needed one thing to survive: a heart transplant. “For a year and a half, she lived with a beeper,” recalls her sister, Becky, hoping for the call that would save Terri’s life.  

During this time, the Customer Service department continued to spend time together. On a cold afternoon in October 1995, the 3M group held their own golf tournament. While Terri was not well enough to golf, she participated by driving the beverage cart for her co-workers. Celeste Hughes recalled thinking, “Terri shouldn’t have been out there because it was so cold (there may have been snowflakes!).” Her mom shared Terri had a great time despite her blue lips and fingertips. Terri reportedly proclaimed, “It was worth it!”  Celeste commented, “Terri was a trooper.” She had had a great time with her co-workers and little did they know how quickly things would turn. 

Terri’s health continued to decline but she was hopeful that the urgency of her condition might make her more likely to receive a heart transplant. Unfortunately, Terri collapsed at work and died on June 26, 1996. A heart did not come in time to save her life.  

Terri’s Legacy Continues to Inspire Others

Simply put, Terri was an inspiration: to her family, to her friends and co-workers. 

Although Terri’s transplant wasn’t meant to be, she was able to be a tissue and eye donor, offering healing to someone else.  

Since 1995, Jim and Marilyn, along with their family and friends, old and new, have been steadfast in their determination to create a world where no one need wait for a life-saving organ transplant.  

Just a few months after Terri’s death, her co-workers approached the Opp family about hosting another golf event to honor Terri’s memory and provide an opportunity for the group to spend time together. The prize money offered at that tournament was turned back to the family and was donated to the University of Minnesota’s Variety Heart Hospital where Terri had received care throughout her life.  

And, so it began. Eventually, this annual golf celebration would become a fundraising collaboration with LifeSource dating back to 1999 – 2000. Today, the LifeSource Golf Classic continues in Terri’s memory to:

  • Support education about organ, eye and tissue donation; and 
  • Inspire others to register as a donor. 

Together, we are relentlessly pursuing a day where no one dies waiting for a life-saving transplant. As family friend, Sara Meslow put it, “We should not have a waiting list.” That’s the goal! 

Over the course of 25 years, Terri and her family have inspired all of us who have participated in this golf tournament – whether it is your first tournament or your 21st. For their inspiration, passion and dedication, we are grateful for the Opp family and the many friends and family members who have been involved in this advocacy over the span of 25 years.