This afternoon, we’ll have our Thanksgiving meal at my little sister, Karen’s home. Mom will say grace – she usually does – and at the end of her prayer, she will give thanks for a 17-year-old girl and her family. She does this on Thanksgiving – but not only on Thanksgiving – we hear her do this at every meal we have with her. And often enough – she stumbles over a few of the words while she holds back tears. Her son, who she likely thought would not live that long, is here, but the thought of losing him has probably crossed her mind several times. She did not have to experience that because of another family who lost their precious daughter, and had the courage and compassion to follow through on her wishes.
Two weeks ago, I met a man who wrote a beautiful little column on the tavern/restaurant where Laura and I and our friends go regularly… Laura and I had our wedding reception there twenty-some years ago and we are there for breakfast quite regularly. Many of Kari’s friends have been there with us too. He wrote about Blackie’s… Carm, one of our regular waitresses there pointed him out when we had breakfast a few weeks ago and we stopped over to thank him for writing the article. Apparently, Carm had already suggested to him that he might want to check out my story but, before he could really ask, my wallet was already out and I was showing him pictures of Kari… I met him for lunch at Blackie’s a few days later – this is his Thanksgiving column:
This year it includes my thanks that my mother is almost 92 and can still pick up and carry her 2-year-old great granddaughter, Little Miss Hurricane.
I'm thankful that my beautiful wife still laughs at most of my jokes and that I have more hair than my brother, although he will argue the point down to the last silvery strand.
I'm also thankful that my job allows me to meet a guy like Steve Ferkau, and through him, the deceased Iowa teenager who saved his life.
I met Steve for lunch the other day at Blackie's in the South Loop. When his grilled cheese sandwich and coke arrived, he pulled a plastic medication box from his pocket and popped a few of the 35 pills he takes daily to survive.
He has diabetes and high blood pressure. His kidneys are beginning to "go south" because of all the medication he has to take.
"By the end of the year,'' he said, "I could be in kidney failure."
Yet, as far as he is concerned, every day is Thanksgiving.
"I've smoked the odds," he told me, with a huge smile.
Ten years ago, Steve needed an oxygen tank to breath. It took him 25 minutes to walk two blocks.
He was 40, and he was dying of a lifetime of cystic fibrosis. The only thing that could save him was a double lung transplant.
He was placed on a waiting list. Four times he received the call to Rush hospital, told that a donor had been found.
"There were four false alarms," he said. "The first time was devastating. It happened a week after my father died."
The fifth time he was called there was a perfect match. A 17-year-old girl from a small town in Iowa had died the day before her junior prom after a blood vessel burst in her brain.
The girl was a star on her high school volleyball team. Her strong heart went to a 50-year-old woman. Her powerful lungs went to Steve on April 8, 2000.
Six days after the surgery, Steve was released from the hospital. Ten weeks after that he was back to work at the Chicago Stock Exchange.
"I have not called in sick in the nine years since then," he said.
Steve eventually learned the girl's name, Kari Westberg. He and his wife, Laura, got to know her parents and some of her high school classmates. He visited Kari's grave.
"I think of her when I get up in the morning and when I go to sleep at night," he said. "She didn't die because of me, but I am alive because of her."
For the last eight years, Steve has helped raise nearly $200,000 in Kari's honor for lung disease research by climbing stairs -- 94 stories at a time -- in the "Hustle up the Hancock" in February.
The first time he hustled up, Steve raised $9,000 in pledges. He was climbing by himself then. Over the years he has been joined by dozens of teammates. They call themselves Kari's Klimbers.
A group of Kari's friends from high school travel to Chicago to climb with Steve and Melissa Simon, 29, a heart transplant recipient from Westchester, who made the climb for the first time last year.
"I had quite a few of Kari's friends cheering me to the top," Melissa said.
It took her 32 minutes. It usually takes Steve longer because he stops to talk with volunteers along the way, thanking them and showing them the photograph of Kari he always carries.
Steve has started training for this February's Hustle by walking the stairs of his South Loop high rise. He's trying not to think about his deteriorating kidneys.
If someday Steve needs a kidney transplant, one of Kari's friends has volunteered to give him one of hers.
Just so you know – my kidneys are “heading South”, but they’re still in pretty good shape – I still probably have some years out of them, but you just never know… And though Rush took care of me up through transplant, I received Kari’s beautiful lungs at Loyola – I probably misspoke in the excitement of telling my story… As anyone who knows me is aware, I do go off on tangents now and then when I chat!
I have more to be thankful for than most – and among those many things I’m thankful for, I’m also thankful for people like Don Terry, who take the time to tell stories about others. And I’m thankful for Kari, and the family who raised her and instilled in her how special the gift of life truly is…
When you’re giving thanks throughout this season – think about the gifts you can leave for others when you leave this beautiful planet… Think about organ donation.