Organ and tissue donation

A mother's gift helps others make memories

The Renke family and organ donation recipient Cliffe family photo
The Renke family and donation recipient Cliffe

As the one-year anniversary of Shannon Lehmann’s mother’s death approached, Shannon knew she wanted to do something special to honor her mother. After all, as an organ donor, Kathy Renkes had saved and improved several strangers’ lives—her final gift to the world.

So, Shannon sat down and she wrote. She wrote about her mom’s final days, about the sensitivity of the hospital staff as the family asked about organ donation, about how doctors determine whether a patient can be an organ donor, about the family’s touching goodbye to Kathy and, finally, about the man who received her mother’s liver, with whom she now shares a special bond.

Over the course of a week, Shannon published all her thoughts on her Facebook page and made the post public—which meant anyone could read it, not just her personal friends. At first, she was worried some of her readers would write negative comments on her post. But the response was overwhelmingly positive.

“People stopped me at basketball games and at the grocery store,” Shannon said. “At least eight people messaged me to say they registered to become an organ donor because of my posts.”

For Shannon, it was the perfect next chapter in a story about a family’s precious gift of life.

A heartbreaking loss

Kathy, who lived in Eagle River, Wisconsin, wasn’t sick at the time of her death. In fact, the 69-year-old had just booked a plane ticket to Florida. She was heading home in her car and suddenly drove off the road right in front of the Eagle River hospital. Her family members later learned she had a stroke.

Kathy Renke portrait
Kathy Renke

Shannon’s husband Jim, who is a first responder, was at the scene of the accident. During Kathy’s last moments of consciousness, he said to her, “Mom, put your arms around me like you’re giving me a hug.”

“That makes us feel so at peace that he was the last person she saw,” Shannon said.

At the hospital, doctors quickly decided to transfer Kathy to the larger Marshfield Medical Center, which is nationally recognized for its stroke care. While the doctors there initially brought up surgery as an option, they determined the stroke was too massive and surgery wouldn’t have helped.

It was Shannon and her brothers who first asked about organ donation—Kathy was a registered organ donor. A member of the UW Health Organ and Tissue Donation (UW OTD) team got on the phone with them in the middle of the night, answered their questions and arranged for someone to come to the hospital the next day to help Shannon understand what to expect in the coming days. “During the whole process, the UW organ team was amazing,” Shannon wrote in one of her posts. “We never felt rushed, pressured or guilted into making a decision.”

The doctors performed extensive testing to confirm that Kathy was brain dead. On Jan. 25, 2022, five days after her crash, the surgeons met with Shannon and her brothers to answer their final questions and give them an opportunity to say their last goodbyes.

Then, Kathy started her Honor Walk. As her family members walked behind, she was wheeled to the operating room down a hallway lined with hospital staff members.

“I feel like the Honor Walk wasn’t just for Mom—it was for our whole family,” Shannon wrote. “I believe they knew how hard this process was and were thankful to us for going the distance.”

Kathy’s gift lives on

Ultimately, three people received Kathy’s organs, and two people received her corneas. When she was ready, Shannon wrote letters to tell the recipients about her mom, who loved spending time with her family—especially her grandchildren—and made delicious caramel breakfast rolls every Christmas morning.

Through UW OTD, Shannon got in contact with Cliffe, who received Kathy’s liver. The two families met for breakfast.

“It was like it was a first date,” Shannon said. “I was so nervous. When Cliffe met me, he whispered in my ear that he wakes up every day and thanks my mom for the gift of life.”

Shannon still misses her mom every day. But she is comforted by the fact that her mother’s selfless gift has allowed others to live full lives. “It brings me peace knowing that part of Mom is still here,” Shannon said, “and she is helping others do what she loved—making memories each day.”