April 25, 2024

Wisconsin women forge form sisterly bond following organ donation

"We immediately had a connection"

MADISON, Wis. — Deirdre Croal is the proud owner of an electric bicycle, the first bike she’s been able to ride since her double lung transplant a decade ago.

“My first ride was overwhelming,” she said. “I was a teenager the last time I rode a bike and I never thought I’d be able to again."

Croal was a persistent teenager, finding ways to stay active even while living with cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that causes mucus in the body to become thick and sticky. As mucus builds up, it can cause blockages, damage or infections in affected organs. She was first diagnosed in the mid-1970s at age 4 and doctors told her parents she probably wouldn’t live for more than a few years. Croal was in and out of the hospital throughout her childhood, but she strived to keep up with her friends, even competing in diving and gymnastics throughout her youth and teen years.

“My parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to do at every level,” she said.

Croal focused on graduating high school, college and later returning to school to study nursing. She endured multiple hospitalizations but never missed a clinical rotation, and even had her nurses supervise examinations while she was in her hospital bed.

Her work and her family in Dane County were the center of Croal’s life. That was until she realized she was having too many challenges with her breathing. Less than three years into her career as a nurse, she realized she needed to quit.

“I pretty much had no life other than lung therapies and work,” she said. “So, it was really hard when I was told that I couldn’t work anymore."

After a lengthy hospital stay in February 2013, Croal called a family meeting to discuss getting on the lung transplant waiting list. Her parents and her siblings helped her decide it would be the right step in order to have more time to spend with her young nieces and nephews. In October of that same year, she received the gift of life.

Dr. James Maloney, thoracic and transplant surgeon, UW Health, professor of surgery, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, performed the surgery.

Croal’s recovery was slower than she expected during the first year after the transplant, but she eventually stabilized enough to write a letter to her donor’s family.

“I just wanted to let them know that without their gift, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.

That letter arrived the day Becky Drechsler returned to Waupaca from her honeymoon. As she sat in the driveway and read the heartfelt message, Drechsler was flooded with memories of her 17-year-old daughter, Kameron Arnlund, who had died unexpectedly in October 2013.

“She was my spitfire,” Drechsler said. “She was the life of the party, always outgoing, and when she loved you, you knew it.”

Drechsler had a son with special needs and the family talked often about what they would want if they were to pass away. Arnlund wanted to be an organ donor, so when doctors told Drechsler her daughter was brain dead, the devastated mother knew her daughter would want to save other people’s lives.

“Knowing that Kameron had made that decision and registered as a donor ahead of time took that stress off our plate while we were grieving her loss,” Drechsler said.

Arnlund was able to donate her pancreas, kidneys, liver and lungs, according to her mother. These gifts often bring comfort to donor families after an unexpected loss, according to Samantha Taylor, donation support specialist supervisor, UW Organ and Tissue Donation.

“Kameron’s generous gifts allow her legacy to carry on,” Taylor said. “She is a powerful example of the impact of donation and especially during Donate Life Month, we hope her decision inspires more people to make the same decision and register as an organ, tissue and eye donor.”

While she was comforted to know her daughter saved lives, she was not ready to write a reply to Croal. She was still grieving and focused on caring for her son. When he became ill with lung failure in July 2016, Drechsler started thinking about what would happen if he needed a lung transplant and the woman who was breathing thanks to her daughter’s lungs.

“I couldn’t write the letter to her fast enough," she said, "I needed to know Deirdre."

The two met for the first time in Fall 2016, going out to lunch at a restaurant in Dane County. Drechsler’s brother was by her side as they returned to Croal’s house, and Croal brought out a stethoscope.

“I heard Kameron’s lungs in her chest that day,” Drechsler said. “I felt so blessed that I could experience my daughter’s breath.”

The women began sharing stories and outlining their extended family trees. Both felt they gained an extended network of grandparents, cousins, nieces and nephews, all connected through Arnlund’s gift.

“When I met Deirdre, things made a little more sense to me,” Drechsler said. “We immediately had a connection.”

Like many families, there are joyful moments and tough times. The women travel back and forth for birthday parties, graduation ceremonies and summer cookouts. They supported one another when Drechsler’s son passed away in 2017. When Croal needed a kidney transplant in 2021 and suffered a stroke in 2023, Drechsler was one of Croal’s first phone calls.

“We’ve become like sisters, and I think this is exactly what Kameron would have wanted,” Drechsler said.

For her part, Croal is incredibly grateful for both her gifts of life, the lungs and the kidney. She hopes her life demonstrates how even a tragedy can have a positive impact on someone.

“I’m very thankful for the decision that Becky made when she supported Kameron’s decision to be an organ donor,” she said.

Deirdre Croal holding photo of donor Kameron Arnlund
Deirdre Croal holding a photo of donor Kameron Arnlund