Maria Lara has difficulty remembering much about the nearly fatal health problems she suffered 35 years ago. To her, it’s all a blur—clarified by the stories she has heard from her mother and brothers.

A small boy posed in front of two adult women, all smiling.
Maria Lara, Sandy Larsen, and Ricardo Jaimes

Here’s what the Rockford, Illinois, woman does know: In 1988, at age 23, she suffered an aneurysm. “I knew what was happening to me, but my family didn’t understand what was going on,” Maria said.

Her family rushed her to the local hospital, where doctors removed the aneurysm—but while she was undergoing rehabilitation in the hospital, she contracted hepatitis A and B. As a result, she developed severe liver problems and had to be transported by helicopter to the UW Health Transplant Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

“My mom told me that my health would get better, then get much worse,” said Maria. “I even had a visit from the priest, who gave me my last rites because my family thought I would die.”

Maria desperately needed a liver transplant—and she was running out of time.

The gift of life

In late April 1988, on the other side of Wisconsin in Green Bay, Sandy Larsen was living through her own nightmare. Her 12-year-old son, Richie, had suffered a catastrophic bike accident when he was hit by a bus. Doctors told her Richie was brain dead, and her minister suggested that she consider organ donation.

“Everyone was aware of the severity of the situation but me,” she said. “I was in denial.”

However, when it became clear that Richie would not recover, Sandy had no problem making the decision to donate his organs. Coincidentally, he had been watching when she signed up to be an organ donor, and had told his mother he wanted to donate his organs, too. She knew exactly what his wishes were.

Richie was able to donate his liver (to Maria) and his kidneys and heart valves saved others. After Sandy said goodbye to him, she went home to grieve. “We donated his organs because I felt that was the right thing to do,” she said. “But there were a lot of conflicting emotions initially.”

At the end of that year, Sandy wrote letters to all of Richie’s recipients.

“At that time, I was going through denial because I had all these health problems,” Maria said. “I didn’t know who to blame.”

In spring 1989, Maria sent a thank-you note to Sandy and soon, the two were connecting via phone calls. Maria invited Sandy to come to a UW Health event celebrating the first 100 liver transplants at the hospital, and that’s where Maria and her family met Sandy in person for the first time.

The experience was difficult for Sandy, but gratifying. She found herself thinking about the week when both of their families were in the hospital. “Here’s a young woman who now has a second chance thanks to the gift Richie gave,” she said. “Meanwhile, I was sitting 90 miles away with my son, being told that he didn’t have a chance. Maria’s mother spoke little English, but she knew enough to say, ‘thank you.’”

A new family

Sandy had lost her first child as a baby, and when Richie passed away and became an organ donor, she no longer had any living children. But Maria and her family adopted Sandy, including her in their family events and keeping in regular contact.

Maria was the first UW Health liver recipient to become pregnant after undergoing transplant. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy in 1991, and named him Ricardo to honor Richie. Ricardo, who is now 32, still calls Sandy “Grandma,” as do his older sister Angelica and younger brother Isaac.

Sandy lived in California for a while, and when she lost her partner a year ago, Angelica traveled to the West Coast to help Sandy in the weeks following his death.

“It’s been absolutely incredible,” said Sandy, who now lives in DePere, Wisconsin. “Maria’s whole family means so much to me.”

Maria, in the meantime, is doing well. As she has aged, she has experienced some minor health problems, but she’s grateful that Richie’s liver has given her the chance to raise her family. “God gave me another opportunity at life,” she said.