'You're family now.' Suburban men forever linked after one donates part of his liver to complete stranger
Living liver donation accounts for less than six percent of liver transplants in the U.S. Altruistic donation, even fewer.
I heard you’re a Cubs fan, but how does it feel to be part White Sox fan now?
Just three days after donating 60 percent of his liver to a complete stranger, Chris Staehlin had his first opportunity to joke around with the recipient, Dan Droszcz. The men met Aug. 27, hours before Staehlin was discharged from Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“I heard you’re a Cubs fan, but how does it feel to be part White Sox fan now,” Staehlin asked, while the room filled with groans from both families.
Droszcz laughed through grateful tears as they learned more about each other and the remarkable gift that brought them together.
Droszcz, a 52-year-old father of three from Tinley Park, Illinois, was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer in April 2021. After assessing his body’s response over time to radioembolization, surgery and systemic biological oral therapy, he was deemed healthy enough to be put on the waiting list for a donor liver. When none of his family members matched as his donor, Droszcz’s family used social media and traditional fliers to try and improve his chances of finding a willing donor.
Frankfort, Illinois resident Sarah Staehlin saw the social media posts several times and realized her 35-year-old husband met the basic liver donor criteria. She mentioned Droszcz’s story, and within weeks, Staehlin was being tested as a potential donor.
“It was a simple decision,” Chris Staehlin said. “He has three kids, and I have two. Kids need their dad. I realized that I could help him have more time with his family.”
On Aug. 24, still strangers, both men underwent surgery. Two days later, Staehlin was already walking five miles in the hospital halls. Droszcz’s recovery would take longer, but his medical team was celebrating with him after his successful surgery.
“Living donor organs are the highest quality we can provide because they are coming from a healthy donor, immediately implanted into the recipient and they start working for the patient right away,” said Juan Carlos Caicedo, MD, a transplant surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “An altruistic donation, when the donor has never even met the patient, is not something we often get to do. It is tremendously moving to have the donor join our efforts to save a patient’s life.”
During a living donor liver transplant, surgeons remove part of the donor’s healthy liver and place it into the recipient. Within 12 weeks, most donor livers will regenerate and return to normal size.
“Living liver donors are a great blessing because they provide a liver graft when it is the right time for the recipient to receive a liver transplant,” Dr. Caicedo said. “It is a tragedy to see patients dying while they are waiting for a liver from a deceased donor. There are not advantages waiting for a deceased donor, there are only risks. Patients who receive organ donations from living donors typically have great outcomes.”
Justin Boike, MD, a hepatologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said he and his colleagues were thrilled to see Droszcz receive a second chance at life because of Staehlin’s gift.
“Dan has been a fighter every step of the way,” Boike said. “He remained positive at the early point in his diagnosis and treatment and has remained proactive with his care. He is also a family man and thrives on the support of his amazing family. Liver transplant can be a definitive cure for liver cancer with the lowest risk for liver cancer recurrence, compared to other treatment options. His new transplanted liver graft will likely last him his lifetime, as liver transplants can function for the entire life of the patient.”
Nearly 6,000 people received liver donations in 2022, however less than six percent of those were from living donors. There are currently more than 11,000 people on the U.S. waiting list for liver donation. Each year, about 16 percent of people on the waiting list die while awaiting transplant.
“It took a multidisciplinary liver tumor program team to treat Dan’s cancer because initially he was not eligible for transplant. Our transplant and hepatobiliary surgeons, hepatologists, oncologists, interventional radiologists and nurses worked for almost a year to make Dan eligible to receive this transplant. This was not an easy task.” Caicedo said. “Beyond surgery, we also used specialized therapies to inhibit the cancer’s growth and to prepare him for surgery. It’s that combination of innovative medicine and selfless organ donation that have made his experience so special.”
Staehlin and Droszcz clasped hands as they sat together in the hospital and shared surgery stories. Family members alternated between crying, laughing and hugging as the men established a banter that was part fun, part heartfelt.
“How's my liver treating you?” Staehlin asked.
“It’s treating me good,” Droszcz said. “I love you, man. You're family now.”
I love you, man. You're family now.