On April 19, Aaron Hinnendael should have been celebrating his 31st birthday,
Instead, at his father's bedside at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, he closed his eyes and wished his dad would finally receive a liver transplant.
In less than 24 hours, his father's health worsened.
Two days later, Mike Hinnendael died waiting for a donation. He was 57.
"He had a window where he could survive a liver transplant, and the donor never arrived," Aaron Hinnendael said.
Mike's story should be unusual, but it's just one more tale of someone who never got a second shot at life.
Last year, 88 people died while on the donor waiting list in Wisconsin — 30 of them younger than 50. There are 1,574 people on the state organ waiting list, and almost 80 percent of them need a kidney.
Fifty-three percent of residents have checked "Yes" on their driver's license to become a donor, ranking Wisconsin in the top 15 nationally for donor registration.
It's important to have a large number of donors in the state, because organs are first matched locally, said Jill Ellefson of the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Organ Procurement Organization.
A person must show medical need before receiving approval from a physician for a transplant, Ellefson said. The selection process involves matching blood types, determining the length of time a would-be recipient has been waiting, considering the severity of the illness and looking at possible donors nearby.
A person must then be healthy enough to survive the surgery, she said.
Mike Hinnendael of Appleton was on the waiting list for about 10 days. After that, he became too ill and physicians didn't think he could survive the surgery, his son said. It was "the biggest letdown of a lifetime."
The average waiting time for liver transplants at University of Wisconsin hospitals is nearly three months, compared with about eight months regionally, according to state health officials.
Hinnendael thinks that if more people agreed to donate, his dad would have found a match.
"Organ donation can build some happiness back in the world, even in the face of tragedy," he said.
Dave Undis grew tired of stories about people waiting to die, so he decided to do something about it.
Undis is the executive director of LifeSharers, a free private donor registry. People sign up for the Nashville, Tenn.-based program, which gives organ donations to its members. If program participants die, the next of kin notifies state procurement teams about their decision, Undis said. If no one in the program is a match, the organs are opened to the general population.
Dr. Raul Mendoza, critical care specialist at Aurora BayCare Medical Center, said the program raises ethical concerns due to a low supply of organs. But Undis acknowledged that the goal is to end the organ shortage.
"If there is anything unethical, it's people who are willing to accept someone else's organs, but not willing to donate their own," Undis said.
The LifeSharers program has almost 14,000 members nationwide and more than 200 in Wisconsin.
Despite the program's promise, since it started in 2002, no member has died in such a way that allows his or her organs to be donated, he said. Only 2 percent of deaths in the U.S. make organ donation possible.
Vicky Lasch of Green Bay is on dialysis and awaiting a new kidney, but she said she didn't know if she would join a program like LifeSharers.
"I believe we should all have the same chance of a donor," she said.
Lasch, 49, is a registered donor and thought it would be unfair for her to be passed over just because she didn't know about the program.
Lasch hopes to be matched with a donor, but said nothing is guaranteed in life.
Life After Transplant
Bob Leurqin of Green Bay said many recipients don't know what is in store after receiving a new organ. Since receiving a new liver and pancreas in November 1995, he said he has faced a series of setbacks.
He was diagnosed with skin cancer and said his skin bruises easily from the medications he must take. Those pills are costly and he is now classified as disabled, which he said makes it hard for him to find work.
"It's a great gift that someone is giving you something so you can carry on with life, but it's not a cure. It's just something to prolong your life," he said. "It was actually harder getting a job being a transplant patient than being a diabetic."
Leurquin said he doesn't regret his decision, but wishes he had more information about living with a donated organ.
"My hope is that when you have these illnesses, they can be cured, so you don't need a transplant," he said.
Alan McCarty was lucky enough to get a heart transplant 17 years ago. And now he needs another one.
The 51-year-old from Brussels has hereditary heart disease, which has claimed the lives of his mother and three siblings. Medication to get his body to accept the new heart has clogged its arteries. A second heart transplant at his age carries a 20 percent chance of death, he said.
"I'd lie if I said it didn't weigh heavy on our minds," he said of his wife and kids.
McCarty said there are downfalls to transplants, but it beats the alternative.
"If someone asks you, 'How do you live with it?' It's kind of like, I can't live without it," he said.