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As soon as Laura Felten saw the picture Allen Freund sent her of her nephew’s photo hanging in his living room, she knew she was going to have a very special relationship with Allen
Laura had lost her nephew, Isaiah, just a few months prior, and she was deeply grieving the absence of the 16-year-old boy who loved to wrestle and was excited to join the military. But when Allen, who had received both of Isaiah’s lungs in a life-saving transplant, showed her how he was honoring his organ donor, she was touched.
“I just felt like this man is family,” she said. “He was treating Isaiah with love.”
A decision that saved a life
Isaiah first began living with Laura and her husband Dave when he was 11. His mom—Laura’s sister—was unable to care for him, and Laura and Dave became the boy’s guardians. Isaiah was enthusiastic about the armed forces and was a member of the Wisconsin Army Cadets in Appleton, which gave him much-needed structure in his life.
The topic of organ donation first came up when he started driver’s education and received his driving permit. “When they asked him if he wanted to be an organ donor,” Laura said, “he said, ‘I never really thought about that. Sure! I know I’m not going to need my organs where I’m going.’”
Isaiah was admitted to the hospital on June 8, 2021, and he became an organ donor on June 12.
A breathing problem
Allen, meanwhile, had been experiencing problems with his lungs for 16 years. Early on, he had learned he had Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which meant his liver did not make enough of a certain protein that protects the lungs.
As the years went on, this caused more and more of a problem. Allen worked in custodial services and tended bar, but after a while, he couldn’t carry full cases of beer because he had such difficulty breathing. “My quality of life went downhill really fast,” he said. “My niece worked for a pulmonologist, and when she saw me, she said I looked like I was about to die.”
Allen got on the wait list at UW Health for a new set of lungs on June 1, 2021, and just 10 days later he received a call that donor lungs had become available. Overcome with emotion and gratitude, he called his sister to drive him from his home in Green Bay to Madison.
After 15 days in the hospital, Allen was discharged to a nearby hotel. His cousin came to pick him up, and they decided to visit the Dane County Farmers Market on Capital Square. “That was the first time in years I could walk five miles and not be tired,” Allen said.
Soon after his transplant, Allen wrote a thank-you letter to his donor’s family, which he left in the care of the UW Organ and Tissue Donation team. On the receiving end, Laura said “I didn’t expect it to happen that quickly. I was happy to hear from him, but I kind of set the letter aside because I was still grieving.”
When she was ready, she wrote a letter back to Allen telling him about Isaiah. Later, she learned he framed that letter and displayed it next to Isaiah’s photo. They started writing back and forth, and eventually they met at a diner in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
In June 2023, Laura, Dave and their daughter accompanied Allen to his two-year check-up at University Hospital in Madison. Allen made T-shirts for all of them that included both Isaiah’s and Allen’s names. Laura was able to listen to her nephew’s lungs inside Allen’s chest for the first time.
“It was really nice,” Laura said. “I told him, ‘I think you’re our angel.’ He is definitely family to us, and if he needed us, we’d be there for him.”