Living liver donor

Peter gives the ultimate gift of life

Peter Aerts, holding his black lab outside and smiling.
Peter Aerts

Peter Aerts made the choice to give the gift of life to someone else.

But before that happened, he experienced grief—raw, profound grief—when he lost his sister, MaryJo. That grief propelled him to make a decision that would change someone else’s life.

Four years ago, MaryJo became sick with a disease that affected her liver while she was involved in relief work in Afghanistan. For a while, it looked like she might benefit from a liver transplant, so Peter—who is now 32—started looking into the possibility of becoming a living liver donor. Sadly, MaryJo passed away, and as Peter and his family mourned her loss, he kept the idea of living liver donation in the back of his mind.

Then, an acquaintance from high school posted a notice on social media that his baby daughter was looking for a living liver donor. The child needed a donor who was small in size, so Peter couldn’t have helped, but again it gave him pause. “It made me think that if it would have worked, that would have been something I would consider doing,” he said.

When Peter heard a radio interview about living liver donation, he decided the signs were too obvious to ignore. He called the UW Health Transplant Center in Madison, WI, and made an appointment to undergo the necessary health checks for liver donation. “I had a life situation where it would be possible,” he said. “I’m single and quite healthy, and because I’m a high school teacher, I can take some time off in the summer.”

Of course, the best-laid plans can go awry, and Peter’s plan to recover from his transplant during the summer didn’t exactly work the way he wanted. He started his living donor testing in May 2022, and because he had a minor iron issue in his blood, he wasn’t approved to donate part of his liver until July. He had his surgery in August, and his school administrators in Eagle River, WI, worked with him to make sure he had enough time to recover.

While people who donate a kidney are able to do so because their other kidney can work by itself, humans only have one liver. That means that we are only able to donate part of our liver—over time, the donated portion grows back. However, it’s a more complicated surgery, and a more challenging recovery.

Peter learned that firsthand. “It was a humbling process,” he said. “But the doctors were clear about everything that was going to happen. The people who were caring for me at UW Health were tough when they needed to be tough and caring when they needed to be caring. I really appreciated everything they did for me.”

He especially liked his surgeon, David Al-Adra, MD. “He was incredible,” he said. “He was a big part of making me comfortable about the process. He really cared about me as a person, which was a huge step in helping me decide that I could do it.”

Just four weeks after he gave the gift of life, Peter started back at work part time. A month later, he was back to teaching chemistry and physics. Now, he’s doing most of the activities he did before his surgery, including working out and playing basketball and volleyball with friends.

He has no idea who ended up receiving his liver—and that’s OK with him. He didn’t make his decision because he wanted gratitude—rather, he gave the gift of life because he felt it was the right thing to do. “I’m a man of faith,” he said, “and I feel like sometimes we’re in certain life situations where we’re meant to do something with it.”