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Shelly Grovogel has a personalized license plate that only she and her family and friends know how to decipher.
“GWMLIF” stands for God, Wes, Miranda and “life”—the first three are the ones who gave her the gift of life through transplant. She never forgets just how many people are responsible for her living long enough to attend her daughter’s wedding and participate in countless other milestones that she could have easily missed.
Her transplant journey started in 2005, when she learned she had paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), a rare blood disease. At the time, doctors prescribed her with a new drug called Soliris, which allowed her to continue with her life and her job as a senior buyer for a food service equipment organization.
Then, an esophageal varices bleed landed her at University Hospital in Madison, WI, in 2012. Shelly’s doctors determined she needed a bone marrow transplant to cure her PNH, but no one in her family was a good match. Ultimately, a living donor—whom she later learned was named Wes—made it possible for Shelly to receive a bone marrow transplant in May 2013.
While the bone marrow transplant helped Shelly get through the next couple of years, it soon became clear that she had suffered significant liver damage because of her disease. She became sicker and sicker as she retained fluid, and by the end of 2015, doctors at UW Health in Madison put her on the wait list for a new liver. A liver became available on Jan. 25, 2016, but it was unclear whether Shelly’s body would accept a new liver. She came in for the surgery anyway.
“I remember being in the recovery room, and the first coherent thing I said was, ‘Did it work?’” Shelly says. “They told me no.” The liver wouldn’t have worked in Shelly’s body, so it went to the next person on the list.
That is where the story could have ended for Shelly. But her family members continued working with UW Health transplant experts, who decided a multi-organ transplant might be the best way to persuade her body to accept the help it needed. “Because of all the ways the blood had made extra paths in my liver, the only way they could connect my organs to someone else’s was if they took that whole region of the body,” Shelly says. “At first, I said I didn’t want it. I had had enough of doctors and surgeries. I just wanted to die.”
Eventually, her best friend talked her into giving transplant one more try, and Shelly went on the wait list for a new liver, pancreas, stomach and small intestine. Two weeks after the attempted liver transplant, surgeons Tony D’Alessandro, MD and David Foley, MD, transplanted Shelly’s gift of life, times four, with a four-organ surgery on Feb. 8, 2016.
After the transplant, Shelly certainly didn’t experience smooth sailing. She was in and out of the hospital for various complications for a year—she experienced necrosis in both of her hips and had to have two hip replacements, and she kept on getting urinary tract infections. But her faith carried her through. She connected with the family of her donor, Miranda, and they later met at a reunion at Restoring Hope Transplant House near Madison, where they had both stayed at different times.
Shelly had the pleasure of attending her daughter Amber’s wedding in 2018. When they were dress shopping, Shelly asked her daughter what she envisioned her mom wearing. “She said, ‘Mom, I have no idea. I never thought you would be here,’” Shelly said.
Shelly’s health has improved remarkably. She traveled to Italy in 2022 and has recently been working with a personal trainer to get in shape. “I’m probably the healthiest I’ve been in 15 years,” she says.
She always takes time to remember the people who made her life possible. Every year on Miranda’s birthday, Shelly and her husband Mike eat tacos—Miranda’s favorite food. And she fondly remembers all the people who care for her at UW Health. “The nurses on the transplant floor are second to none,” she said. “The care was amazing.”
“We have always kept a positive attitude throughout this whole ordeal,” Shelly continued. “Sometimes you take it one day at a time, and sometimes you take it one minute.”