Facing liver failure in 2014 and unable to find a matching organ donor, Cindy Petersen wrote an open letter asking potential donors for help. Then, she allowed a friend to share it on Facebook.
What happened next is rare—even in the increasingly connected world of social media.
In less than 24 hours, Chad McNiesh, a National Guard medic with more than two decades of experience, saw the note. Though his family—which had already sent him to combat twice—was uncomfortable with the idea of seeing him go under the knife, McNiesh felt obligated to help Petersen. With his family’s eventual blessing, he reached out to the Chanhassen teacher and offered to help.
“Within 24 hours, Chad called me and said ‘I’d like to meet you and I think I might be interested in doing this for you,’” Petersen said. “I’m a very lucky woman to have found him.”
On May 19, McNiesh and Petersen celebrated the one-year anniversary of their liver transplant with a milestone celebration at University of Minnesota Medical Center. There, they gathered with family, friends and University of Minnesota Health care providers to swap stories and eat a custom-made cake topped with frosting in the shape of a liver.
“Living organ donation is the most selfless, humane, altruistic act that you can ever do,” said Transplant Surgeon Srinath Chinnakotla, MD, who is the director of the University of Minnesota Health liver transplant program. Chinnakotla was a part of the surgical team for McNiesh and Petersen. “It's a way to extend life to someone who is in dire need.”
More than 16,000 patients in the United States are waiting for a liver transplant. In 2015, there were only 6,878 transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing’s 2015 statistics. Of all the liver transplants conducted in 2015, only 211 were living donor liver transplants.
Petersen, a 62-year-old avid bicyclist and outdoor enthusiast, suffered from severe edema in her legs, fragile skin and jaundice during the years leading up to the transplant. After a blood test, she was diagnosed with primary biliary cholangitis, an autoimmune disease that damages the liver’s bile ducts.
In spite of the condition, she continued to pursue cycling—and even planned a tour of Italy with her longtime college friends. But as her disease progressed, she was forced to cancel the trip and was placed on a transplant list.
“I’m very happy to have him in my life, and I’m very happy to have a life,” Petersen said at the one-year anniversary event. “It’s a truly humbling experience. I’m so thankful for the exceptional care that we both received.”
“Facebook brought us together but nothing’s going to tear us apart; you’re part of our family now,” McNiesh told Petersen at the reunion.