Mark Aune chose to go to college to get to know the 18-year-old man who saved his life
By Grace Webb | Minnesota State University, Mankato
The reason is simple: he wants to help young people like the one who donated his liver to Aune last year.
"I still have no idea why I survived, but I find some solace in going to school with people the age of my donor," Aune said. "I feel I have something to share with [them]."
Aune received a liver from an 18-year-old donor in November 2009. Aune was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that causes scarring of the bile duct in the liver. When the duct scars, it becomes too narrow to let bile travel out of the liver. Instead, bile builds up in the organ, which can eventually cause liver failure and death.
Aune said his doctor told him he was going to die if he didn't receive a transplant. He was put on a waiting list in February of 2009, but he said he wasn't too hopeful about finding a donor.
"My wife and I had already picked out a cemetery and a headstone," he said. "I just didn't think they'd ever find a donor."
But on Nov. 11, 2009, he received a call from the transplant center telling him to come to the hospital. Someone was able to donate a liver.
The donor was an 18-year-old man. Aune doesn't know much about him, but he does know that the young man also donated his heart and kidney to two other patients. Aune met his fellow organ-recipients after surgery.
Aune said he hopes to someday meet the man's family and tell them how grateful he is to their son.
"I'm alive because a young man marked on his driver's license that he wanted to be a donor," Aune said.
Aune said it was difficult to recover from the surgery because he didn't know why he survived while a young man died.
"You're thankful you had your transplant, but still, someone had to die," Aune said. "It weighs you down. Lying in my hospital bed… I was thinking, ‘There's got to be a purpose. You've been given a second chance. This second chance is something that is precious. What are you going to do with it?'"
Aune found part of his answer when he was visited by a representative from LifeSource, a nonprofit corporation that operates organ donation centers and runs blood drives. LifeSource also helps set up meetings between organ recipients and the family of the organ donor, if both parties want to meet.
Aune became involved with LifeSource by talking to groups about his story and the donation process. So far, he has talked at high schools, social gatherings, church groups and more.
"I don't care if the group is one person," Aune said. "I will still talk to them."
Aune decided another thing he wanted to do was go back to school. He said he wanted to learn as much about what his donor was like as possible.
"[My donor] never had the chance to go to college," he said. "And in the faces of the students I see in my classes, I hope that maybe I see him."
Aune said he wants to be able to interact with college students and donate his knowledge and abilities to them. He said he didn't feel like he knew much about young people, so part of his goal in college is to learn everything about college students. To achieve this, he is trying to do everything like a regular student, including using college loans.
"It makes me more appreciative of what college students go through," he said.
Aune, who took a history class with his grandson last semester, is not sure what he wants to do after he graduates. He does know, however, that he wants to spend the rest of his life working with young people and spreading the message of how important organ donation is. He's not certain how long his new liver will last, but he is not worried.
"I'm so thankful for the year I've already had," he said. "It's almost like being born again."
For more information about organ donation or LifeSource, visit www.lifesource.org.