Giving the Gift of Health
As the associate director of Admissions, Steve Schaefer's '88 inbox is always full. But in the fall of 2008, a life-changing e-mail caught his attention. A former co-worker's husband needed a kidney.
Steve knew Naomi (Fogderud) Wawers '95 when she was an admissions representative. Her husband, Todd, had struggled with kidney disease since he was 20. Over two decades, two other transplants had failed.
Doctors put Todd on the transplant list again. They recommended finding a donor from outside the family and told him the average wait would be five to seven years. In hopes of shortening the wait, many people in the Admissions Office were tested. Steve was one of them.
"I had met Todd just briefly prior to getting involved with the donation. What I knew about him was that he liked old sports cars," Steve says.
Steve fully expected the test to come back negative. But it came back as a preliminary match. He thought he would donate his kidney, but wanted to become comfortable with the idea before committing.
Steve didn't want to tell the Wawers until he was certain. He didn't want to get anyone's hopes up.
At the end of April 2009, Steve arranged with others in the Admissions Office to take Naomi out for her birthday. They made sure Todd was invited.
The parties chatted a bit. Then Steve handed Naomi an invitation. It said Steve and his wife, Terese (Murphy) '90, invited the Wawers to MeritCare in Fargo, N.D., on May 27 to get a new kidney.
Naomi started crying and handed the invitation to Todd. By that time he was so sick that his vision was getting bad. He couldn't read the invitation and had to ask what it said.
Steve looked at Todd and said, "I am the donor."
"We were both so shell-shocked. I just couldn't get over thinking, 'Steve hardly knows us,'" Naomi says. "I don't think I quit crying through the entire lunch. It was such a relief."
"What do you say when you're sitting at a table eating pizza and the guy tells you that he's giving you an organ?" Todd says.
Steve's willingness to donate an organ comes from being raised as a giving person, he says. He donates blood and is listed as an organ donor on his driver's license. A friend of his had donated a kidney and Steve observed how quickly he recovered. Research assured him that a person could give up a kidney and live a completely normal life. The doctor told him the only thing he couldn't do was play in the NFL.
Steve's one request to the Wawers was for the surgery to take place after the Fargo Marathon.
"I hope that your kidney knows it's not going to run any more marathons after it moves over here," Todd joked.
With transplants, it can take a day or a month for the kidney to start working. But Todd's new kidney started working immediately. He felt better right away.
"Worlds better, right away. You couldn't ask for it to go any smoother," he says.
Todd's exhaustion is gone, replaced with energy to enjoy walks, play golf and keep up with the couple's 3-year-old daughter, Grace.
"When you look at the gift that Steve gave Todd – he said 'that's just how I was raised, when someone needs help, you help them,'" Naomi says. "His gift is so far reaching. I look at our daughter. She gets Todd healthy because of what Steve did. So do family and work and friends."
Since the process started, the Schaefers and Wawers have gotten to know each other better. Steve and Todd share a passion for golf. The families try to get together, but schedules are often tough to line up.
This year Steve ran the marathon five days shy of the transplant's one-year anniversary. He and his wife ran to raise money for Alexa's Hope, a foundation that inspires organ donation. Todd, Naomi and Grace cheered them on from a second-floor perch on Broadway.
"They are so passionate - it's great to have such an ally out there spreading the word," Naomi says. "Just getting to know him, that in itself, is a gift."