Twenty-five years ago, Don Jensen spent Christmas in a hospital room. His family would not have wanted it any other way.
On Christmas Day in 1985, they were celebrating the gift of life.
Four days earlier, he had received a kidney transplant – a kidney ultimately given to him after the first person called turned it down, saying it was too close to Christmas.
It wasn’t too close for the Jensen family. In fact, they could not think of a better Christmas present.
Jensen says it was the gift of life that he continues to celebrate.
“I’ve done just about everything I’ve wanted,” he said. “If I work two or three days hard, the next day I take it easy.”
When he received that kidney in 1985, he was 39 years old and his kidneys were shutting down. He was on dialysis, waiting for a kidney.
Jensen was 14 when he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes – a disease that eventually took both of his legs right below the knee and his fingertips.
The disease has also affected his heart, resulting in bypass surgery in the past and in cardiac arrest last summer.
His wife, Janice, said, “I thought he was having a diabetic reaction in his sleep. Earlier that evening, he did have a diabetic reaction.”
When that happens, his blood sugar is checked, taking between 20 and 30 minutes to get it back to its normal level.
“I could hear him clearing his throat. He was in the fetal position at the end of the bed. I called 911 and said he’s having a diabetic reaction,” she said.
Janice also called their daughter, Trisha Taber, a nursing student set to graduate in May 2012 who had been at the house earlier when he did have the diabetic reaction.
“I was there in about a minute,” Taber said of what happened after her mother’s call later that same evening. “It was breathing I’d never heard of. I picked him up and tried to hold him. He coded.”
Where she got the strength, she does not know.
She checked for a pulse and did CPR until the ambulance arrived, also assisting in using a defibrillator on him. “It took three shocks, and he came back,” Taber said.
Jensen calls his daughter his hero, but she says, “When your dad suddenly stops breathing in your arms, I guess you never really give a thought as what to do next … you just do it. And, once it was all said and done, and my dad and I had a chance to talk about everything, he tried to thank me … honestly, looking back, I guess it was just my chance to thank him for all that he has done for me in my life.”
These days, in addition to the insulin pump he wears, Jensen has a combination pacemaker and defibrillator inside of him.
The heart issues he has been through are related to the diabetes, and Janice says the insulin pump has made the world of difference for him and other diabetics.
And, she said that with all that his body has been through, the kidney he received 25 years ago continues to keep working.
The parents of a 31-year-old Madison man made the decision to donate their son’s organs. Their son had died in an accident.
For some time, the Jensens received a Christmas card from the young man’s family. That was until the mother of the 31-year-old passed away.
Taber has been searching for the siblings of the young man, wanting to let the family know they made the right decision in donating his organs.
Jensen said he thinks about that family and wonders how they are doing.
When he received his kidney transplant 25 years ago, on average, recipients could expect to live between five and 10 years, he said.
As he thinks about the past 25 years, he wants others to realize that people can live quite a long time with transplants.
That is why when it came to celebrating his 25th anniversary of receiving a kidney, the family decided to not only celebrate the gift of life he was given but to encourage others to sign the back of their driver’s license to be organ donors and to also educate people about being living donors.
When the celebration was held Dec. 19 at Silver Lake Lanes, just outside of Scandinavia, there were handouts, and any donations received are being sent to the Kidney Foundation of Wisconsin.
In the U.S., 77,000 Americans are currently waiting for a kidney transplant, Taber said.
There are eight organs that may be transplanted: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas and small intestine.
Donated tissue is used to treat burn patients, serious abrasions, hernia repairs and in reconstructive surgeries for patients, such as breast cancer survivors. Bone is used in orthopedic surgeries, heart valves are used to replace defective valves, and tendons are used to repair torn ligaments on knees or other joints.
Veins are used in surgeries, and corneas can restore sight to the blind.
“From one donor, you can enhance the lives of more than 50 people,” Taber said.
And, within a small radius, there are two other people who also received kidney transplants that continue to work. A Rosholt man received his kidney 40 years ago, and an Iola woman receiver hers 35 years ago, Taber said.
Janice called their recent gathering a celebration and about increasing awareness.
Of her mother, Taber said, “I think sometimes my mom gets left out of the success equation because she wasn’t the one who, as my dad puts it, saved his life in July, when in fact, the opposite is actually true. She has been the woman who has taken such great care of him for the past 25 years. And, if it wasn’t for the close attention that she pays to my dad’s health and her quick thinking on when to call for help, etc. ‘help’ (or me) wouldn’t have the opportunity to do what we do. She has been there through all of his surgeries, countless doctor visits and spent many thankless hours doing all that it takes as the wife of a brittle diabetic.”
They thank the family, who in the midst of their own sorrow, made the decision to donate their son’s organs.
Taber wonders how many others who also received organs from him are still alive today.
A magnet hanging on the refrigerator in the Jensen’s home says, “Don’t take your organs to heaven. Heaven knows we need them here.”
Jensen says he has lived a full life these past 25 years because of the kidney he received.
He is a member of the Scandinavia Booster Club, Scandinavia Library Board and Friends of Scandinavia History. He also helps at Jorgen’s Park and enjoys woodworking.
“You can still do things,” he said. “There’s no stopping an individual.”