April 18, 2023

Liver transplant recipient forges bond with family of his donor

"I thank your mom every day"

Madison, Wis. – As a married mother of three, Shannon Lehmann never imagined she’d go on a first date again, but this was not a typical first date.

In October 2022, Lehmann, along with her husband, her brothers and their spouses met Cliffe Connor, the man who received their deceased mother’s liver. His first words were powerful, according to Lehmann.

“He whispered in my ear, ‘I wake up and I thank your mom every day’ for giving him another day of life,” Lehmann said. “I knew from that moment we were already family.”

Lehmann’s mom Kathy Renkes was driving home from work on a snowy January day in 2022 when she suffered a stroke and her car slid off the road. She was taken to a Marshfield hospital but unfortunately, brain scans showed she would not survive.

Renkes had survived a brain aneurysm 11 years earlier, so the family knew her wishes were to be an organ donor, Lehmann said.

“She was the type of person who would drop anything for anyone, and she once told us ‘Whatever is good let them take it. What am I going to use it for?’” Lehmann said. “We were heartbroken to learn the damage was irreversible and we were going to lose our mom, but we knew her organs could save lives."

One of those lives was Connor’s. He had been placed on the transplant list in December 2021 after living with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver for several years. He had expected a long wait for a new liver until he got the call about four weeks later, he said.

“I think there were some tears and excitement. I am always up for an adventure,” Connor said. “I had accepted I was going to be dead in the next year and then this call comes in. I was surprised, but excited.”

Connor was one of five people who received a life-changing gift from Renkes. Her kidneys, corneas and liver were donated to living recipients.

This legacy is often what brings comfort to donor families after an unexpected loss, according to Samantha Taylor, senior donation support specialist, University of Wisconsin Organ and Tissue Donation.

“Our goal is to help, guide and comfort families through the donation process with compassion,” Taylor said. “April is National Donate Life Month, a time when we really encourage more people to register as organ, tissue and eye donors, so we hope stories like Kathy’s gift to Cliffe will show others the power of donation.”

After the transplant, Connor spent several weeks recovering. He had to take a break from playing drums with his rock band; he needed to regain his stamina to play long sets. During the rehabilitation time, he wished to connect with the family whose loved one had allowed him to take an encore, he said.

So, Connor and Lehmann first exchanged anonymous letters before being formally introduced by the organ donation team. Eventually, Connor and his wife agreed to meet Lehmann and her family at a diner in Eagle River.

Connor was equally nervous for that first meeting, he said.

“They were sweet and loving about it,” Connor said. “I asked what kind of music Kathy liked, because she’s a drummer in a rock band now – her memory lives on with me.”

The families exchange birthday and Christmas cards and plan to expand the introductions to include Connor’s grandchildren. Lehmann and Connor recently met again in Madison to catch up. Connor shared stories about his newest grandchild, who was born after his transplant surgery — a meeting that wouldn’t have happened without the gift of life from Renkes.

“This is what she would have wanted," Lehmann said, "and I am so grateful she was an organ donor."