Giving Thanks - motorcycle accident victim becomes organ donor

Two Sturgeon Lake families will be giving thanks for two very different things this week. The family of pharmacist Jim Michels, who just returned home from Mayo Medical Center after receiving a life-saving kidney transplant, is rejoicing in light...

Two Sturgeon Lake families will be giving thanks for two very different things this week. The family of pharmacist Jim Michels, who just returned home from Mayo Medical Center after receiving a life-saving kidney transplant, is rejoicing in light of the unexpected gift he's been given. Across town, Mari Swenson is giving quiet thanks for the grandson who lost his own life - but passed along that amazing gift to so many others.

Swenson raised her grandson, Jeremy, for the past 18 or 19 years, and the two had a close and loving relationship.

"I watched him go through his First Communion, school conferences, high school graduation and, most recently, his motorcycle test," Swenson related.

She recalled that Jeremy had an interest in many things and was still seeking his niche in life at the age of 22. He worked as a cook at both Ernie's and Perkins, had trained with his uncle to become an over-the-road truck driver, worked at Grand Casino for a year and a half and was most recently apprenticing as a carpenter as well.

"He always felt the more you can learn, the better off you'll be," said Swenson. "There was really nothing he didn't like to do - other than wash dishes!" she chuckled.


Last spring, Jeremy decided to realize a life-long dream - to learn to ride a motorcycle. Since his car was already paid off, he decided to buy a Harley Davidson 1200 Sportster.

"His motorcycle was his baby," attested Swenson. "It was his key to freedom, something all his own. He'd had to live kind of a tough life, and he didn't really have anything much he could claim as his own."

When the time for Jeremy's motorcycle test rolled around, she said he "aced it" and joyfully embraced every minute he was able to spend on his Harley. In fact, just the week after his test, he proudly offered to take his grandmother for a ride and even encouraged her to get a bike of her own someday.

"Our relationship was really very good," she reflected. "How many kids would want their grandmother to ride motorcycles with them?"

Around that same time, she said the two of them had been talking about some of life's more important - and difficult - decisions, such as organ donation and cremation. The talk gravitated to a discussion about family acquaintance Jim Michels, a pharmacist who had worked in both Sandstone and Moose Lake. Michels had been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease when he was just 31 years old, and over the past five years his health had degenerated to the point where he was facing dialysis and/or a kidney transplant. Though he'd been on the transplant list since October 2006, no word had yet come his way regarding a donor.

"Jeremy knew something about Jim's circumstances and prognosis, since I'd once worked as a pharmacy assistant with him at Family Pharmacy in Sandstone," said Swenson. "They'd met a few times, and Jim used to give Jeremy pop cans for fundraisers he was involved with at school. Jeremy talked about Jim quite a few times, wondering what would happen when dialysis no longer worked for him. I told him the only thing left for Jim at that point would be to have a kidney transplant. I'm not certain, but I think Jeremy later indicated on his provisional license that he wanted to be an organ donor."

Unfortunately, Jeremy hadn't yet indicated his desire to be an organ donor on his driver's license, however, so on that fateful day in October when he lost his life, there was much left to be decided.....

On Oct. 19, Swenson prepared to head out for the Twin Cities to visit an aunt suffering from Alzheimer's disease.


"When I left that day, I'd already said goodbye to him at home," she related, "but I decided to stop by the house where he was working at his carpentry job on my way out of town. He was surprised to see me, but we locked eyes and he told me everything was going to be all right because I'd lost my job recently. Then we told each other, 'I love you,' and I left."

Swenson said she was coming home from visiting her aunt later that day when she came across the scene of an accident along I-35 a couple of miles outside of Hinckley.

"The victim had already been taken to the hospital," she said, "but I remember thinking that someone must have been injured very badly."

She had just arrived home when a state patrol car pulled into the driveway.

"I knew right away something terrible must have happened," she said. "He told me that Jeremy had been involved in an accident and was in critical condition. And then he handed me Jeremy's wallet and cell phone."

The accident had occurred at 6:52 p.m. that Sunday night. Jeremy had been riding his motorcycle to the Twin Cities to visit a friend, and though the formal report of the accident has not yet been finalized, Swenson said witnesses and emergency personnel speculate he may have come into contact with a truck as he attempted to pass it.

She was told that Jeremy had beenairlifted to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale and was headed in for surgery, so she first called his mother in Woodbury to inform her of the accident and then made arrangements to drive as far as Sandstone, where she planned to pick up Jeremy's sister to go along with her. Swenson was driving down I-35 when her cell phone rang. It was the neurosurgeon at the hospital, delivering the grim news that Jeremy had suffered non-survivable brain trauma that was too massive to operate on.

The surgeon asked if she had any plans for Jeremy to become an organ donor, since no parts of his body had been damaged in the accident except his head. He asked her to think about it on the way to the Twin Cities, since Jeremy was still on life support and tests had been scheduled to check for any remaining sign of brain waves. Following that, there were some important decisions to be made.


On Monday, Jeremy was administered the last rights and he never regained consciousness. When Swenson was at the hospital, she was approached by a representative of LifeSource regarding her decision about whether to donate Jeremy's organs. At first, even though she and the boy had discussed the merits of organ donation, she couldn't quite bring herself to give the go ahead.

"The woman from LifeSource was extremely wonderful, and she kept coming back and talking to me," she recalled.

What convinced Swenson to finally go ahead with it was a far more visceral experience. She went into Jeremy's room, stooped over so the two of them were face to face and began talking quietly to him, even though she knew he was unable to hear her. She said she suddenly felt a certain sense of energy - and an inspiration. When a male nurse came into the room, she asked him, "Do you know Jeremy's blood type?"

She found out Jeremy was a B+, and Swenson hastily made a long distance call to Michels to tell him what had happened to Jeremy - and find out what his blood type was, with an eye toward asking that one of Jeremy's kidneys be donated to him.

"It was the last thing I expected," Michels later confessed. "She was on a cell phone and we got cut off three times. I thought she was just calling to tell me about what happened to Jeremy."

On the third try, Swenson was at last able to get the message across to Michels and discovered his blood type was the same as Jeremy's. Excitedly, she asked him for all of his case and file numbers related to his medical treatment at Mayo. She made a quick call to the woman from LifeSource, saying she was willing to approve the donation of Jeremy's organs, with one stipulation - that one of his kidneys was to go to Michels. Within an hour or so, the donation had been approved by Mayo.

"I kept thinking to myself, 'Can this possibly be happening?'" confessed Michels. "I hated to get my hopes up. It was just unbelievable that Mari would think of this at a time when she was grieving."

Also circling around in the back of his mind was the irony of the timing of this unexpected gift - his wife had agreed to donate one of her kidneys to him this December, though her blood type was not the same as his.


By 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, Michels got a call from Mayo asking him if he could be in Rochester by 1 p.m. that afternoon. He and his wife made arrangements for a family member to take care of their children and hit the road. He called Swenson saying he was on his way to Rochester and was still in shock over the unexpected gift he was about to receive.

"Originally, they thought I'd have the transplant around 5 p.m. that day," he said, "but then it was put off until midnight, then 7 a.m. the next morning, then noon. It finally took place at 2 p.m. that afternoon."

By the time Swenson arrived back home that day, she received a call saying three other recipients in addition to Michels had also been matched up with Jeremy's organs, including his heart, liver, kidney, and bone marrow.

"They told me that with what he had to give [such as tissues, ligaments, bone marrow and corneas], more than 40 lives could be saved," said Swenson.

Jeremy's funeral took place on Oct. 27 at Holy Angels Church in Moose Lake, and the crowds of people who attended were testament to the lives he touched while he was still alive.

"He was a kind human being who was always concerned about others," said Swenson. "He reached out to all sorts of different people."

Michels arrived home from Rochester on Friday, Nov.14, and he confessed it's still difficult for him to grasp how the whole thing worked out.

"My whole life has changed because of it - and my outlook, too," he said. "I can't say thank you enough for this amazing gift."


Swenson reflected that seeing Michels' new lease on life has been a comfort to her, even in the light of her grief over Jeremy's untimely death, and she would very much like to meet some of the other recipients of Jeremy's organs some day.

"Whoever got his heart got a good one!" she declared.

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