Westwood High School grad donates kidney to fellow alum

MARQUETTE — Two Westwood High School alums are bringing attention to organ donation especially the possibility of becoming a living donor.

We hear all the time about how a chance meeting of two people can be life-altering. But, in the case of Donna Schaffer and Scott Berg — a relationship forged by chance — it saved his life. Berg took Schaffer to her first Westwood High School junior prom in the 1980s and — years later, in August 2016, Schaffer donated one of her kidneys to Berg.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, there were 116,000 men, women and children on the national transplant waiting list as of August 2017. Every 10 minutes another person is added to the waiting list and 20 people die every day waiting for a transplant.

A total of 5,976 organs transplanted in 2016 came from living donors while 35,360 came from deceased donors, the DHHS site states.

Schaffer remembers Berg, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1980, as a good friend in high school with whom she walked to school from their respective homes on Glendora Lane in Ishpeming Township.

“We were both in the band and enjoyed the outdoors. We enjoyed music and working with Scott’s hunting dog, Prince,” Schaffer said in an October 2016 interview. “Scott has been so strong his whole life, having juvenile diabetes. He was in the hospital just days before our prom.”

Schaffer said although she and Berg tried to stay in contact, they lost touch a few years after high school graduation, then reconnected on Facebook a few years ago.

She had moved to Columbia, South Carolina where she was working at the University of South Carolina on a doctorate in choral conducting, while he had moved to DeWitt in southern Michigan where he worked as a safety representative for General Motors.

The turning point for Berg was when he was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure in 2012 and started dialysis in 2014. Upon going to a kidney transplant orientation at the University of Michigan, he eventually was determined to be eligible for a transplant and placed on the National Registry.

He said he started a Facebook support page, and soon after, Schaffer stepped up to be tested to see if her tissue would be a viable match for donation.

‘I knew I had to try,” Schaffer said. “He has always been a champion for others, working at the camp for other young people with diabetes and always encouraging others to stay strong. I never heard him complain.”

She was able to do the testing at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, she said.

“They did tissue sampling on her, and discovered that she was a perfect tissue match,” Berg said. “The odds of this happening are very low.”

In fact, the match would allow Berg to be on a steroid avoidance program, which decreased the chances of long-term complications from steroid use, he said. According to information provided by Mayo Clinic, steroids are typically used as an immunosuppressive medication to prevent rejection in transplant patients.

On the morning of the surgery, Berg said his surgeon came in to tell him that the kidney, which Berg has since named “Daisy,” had been recovered from Schaffer in perfect condition.

“I was so excited I was in tears,” Berg said. “I remember also worrying about Donna and praying she would recover from surgery well. Several hours later, I learned that Donna was in the room next to mine. Her nurse brought her to my door in a wheelchair. We were both pretty well sedated as I recall, but we both smiled.”

Schaffer, who finished her doctorate in choral conducting about a year and a half after the surgery, said in an April 15 email that returning to work two weeks after surgery may have been too soon, but she does not regret the decision to donate her kidney to Berg.

“With working and finishing up my doctorate, I would say it took a good six months to adjust,” she said.

For his part, Berg said he is doing “fantastic,” during an interview on April 21.

“I was able to go to work six weeks after the transplant and have been going strong since,” Berg said. “I am also the commander of the Clinton County Emergency Services — we perform search and rescue for the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office. I am leading a normal life again and have the energy I did in my twenties. This has truly changed my life.”

Berg said throughout the testing process and just prior to the transplant he kept in communication with Schaffer to ensure she was still comfortable with the surgery.

“I asked Donna repeatedly if she was still willing to go forward with the transplant. I told her if she decided at any time to not go forward, I would support her 100 percent,” he said. “Each time, she said she was ready to proceed and would not go back on her word. She never hesitated. I truly believe that we have people in our lives for many reasons. Donna was brought into my life when we were young, and will always be a part of our family though the grace of God. I am convinced this was not coincidental. I live my life being thankful for what I have and who I have in my life.”

Schaffer said signing up to be an organ donor, and that becoming a living donor can be an extraordinarily rewarding experience.

“I would like to strongly encourage people to consider becoming a living donor. What you give comes back to you ten-fold,” she said. “It is truly the most worthy thing I have done in my life.”

Those wishing to sign up for the Michigan Donor Registry can do so by visiting their local Secretary of State Office or visiting www.michigan.gov/sos online. Those who would like more information on living organ donation can visit the transplant living website at www.transplantliving.org.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.