Donor hero

Cole gives the gift of life to two others after his own ends

Four adults, two women and two men, facing the camera smiling with their arms around each other.
Left to right: Desiree Healy, Maricel Hagstrom, Mike Hagstrom, Danny Cisco

Ten years ago, Danny Cisco, Desiree Healy, and Mike and Maricel Hagstrom were strangers. They lived in different parts of the country, and each had their own families to focus on.

But in the summer of 2014, a tragic event occurred that would change all their lives forever—and eventually bring them together to become their own kind of family.

Gone too soon

Mike and Maricel were fiercely proud of their son, Cole, who had been a superstar athlete in high school. At age 20, Cole had three young children, worked at DuPont, and volunteered as a paramedic with the local fire department.

His parents were away from their South Beloit, Illinois, home at their vacation property in Wisconsin when they received a call that he was in critical condition at the hospital. “We found out there was nothing we could do to save him,” said Mike. “Cole was so positive in life and so giving. All he wanted to do was help people, so there was no better way for us to honor him than to keep him alive through somebody else.”

The Hagstroms said goodbye to their beloved son and agreed to donate his organs to people in need of a transplant.

Able to breathe again

Once they made their decision, UW Organ and Tissue Donation professionals began making calls to transplant programs who had patients waitlisted who matched Cole’s organs. One of those patients was Danny Cisco from Sabina, Ohio. Danny is a U.S. Army veteran who believes he developed lung disease when he was working with toxic glue to fix floor tiles in the barracks. After he came home, it slowly became more and more difficult for him to breathe, and when he finally saw a pulmonologist, the doctor told him he had the lungs of a 90-year-old.

Danny was told he needed a lung transplant. He pursued getting on the wait list at two different facilities in Ohio, but neither worked out because of insurance issues and other problems.

Eventually, he got listed for a lung transplant through the Veterans Administration at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, one of just three VA hospitals approved to manage lung transplant patients. The Madison VA partners with the UW Health Transplant Center, one of the largest centers in the nation. About a year after he was added to the national wait list, he received the call he had been waiting for—a set of lungs had become available in Wisconsin.

He traveled there right away, and on Aug. 6, 2014, he received his gift of life. “It was amazing,” he said. “I remember waking up, and my brain wasn’t starving for air anymore. When I got the ventilator out and took that first breath, I realized, ‘Wow, I can breathe.’ I walked to the nurses’ station and back. That would have been impossible the day before.”

Five weeks after his transplant, Danny wrote a letter to his organ donor’s family—the Hagstroms. At first, they communicated only through UW Organ and Tissue Donation (UW OTD), but after a while, they connected on a more personal level.

Because Danny lives in Ohio, a face-to-face meeting wasn’t practical at the time. But when he came to Wisconsin for his next appointment, he stopped at the Hagstroms’ house in South Beloit to meet the family that had saved his life. “It was surreal,” he said. “It was so emotional, but within 10-15 minutes, we were laughing and joking like we had known each other forever.”

No more diabetes

While Danny’s problem was with his lungs, Desiree Healy, who lived in Westchester, New York, had suffered from Type 1 diabetes since she was 5. She had never been able to control her diabetes well and by the late 1990s, she was also in kidney failure and knew she would eventually need a transplant. In 2014, she started dialysis, and her former boss Beth and Beth’s husband Roy started handling much of Desiree’s caretaking.

At the dialysis clinic, a nurse gave them a list of places where Desiree should get listed for a combined kidney and pancreas transplant. The new pancreas would mean an end to her diabetes, which had caused her kidney failure. Most of the programs had a five- to seven-year wait, but Beth had contact with someone from UW Health, and Desiree and Roy flew to Wisconsin to meet with transplant surgeon Jon Odorico, MD.

Desiree got on the wait list in Madison, and just 11 days later, she received a call that a kidney and pancreas had become available. It turned out to be a false alarm (the pancreas wasn’t suitable for transplant), but after two more false alarms, Desiree received another call that ended up being Cole’s kidney and pancreas. She received her gift of life on Aug. 6, 2014.

Early in 2015, Desiree was able to connect with the Hagstroms, but just via letters sent through UW OTD. It wasn’t until April 2016 that Desiree received a phone call from Maricel, and they started making plans to meet up.

An expanding family

Eventually, Desiree, Danny and the Hagstroms were all able to meet each other—and they felt like an instant family. “Dan is my brother,” Desiree said. “I never had a brother before. From the minute he said hello on the phone, there was an instant connection. He calms me.”

Because Desiree and Danny both had their transplants the same day, their annual follow-up appointments are always around the same time, too. They work together now to coordinate a trip to the Hagstroms’, and then travel from South Beloit to Madison for their appointments.

The Hagstroms know about three other recipients of Cole’s organs—one of whom was a little boy in Colorado. They communicated briefly with his mother, but she didn’t want to continue a relationship, and they haven’t yet heard from the other recipients.

That’s fine says Mike—he and Maricel are grateful they get to see their son live on in Danny and Desiree. “We took them in with open arms,” he said. “They’re both part of our family now.”