‘I just think of it as helping out a friend’
Organ donor Elsa Fischer discusses donating a kidney to her childhood friend
The following is the third in a three-part series related to kidney and pancreas transplant recipient Michelle Bejbl Thomas. The series concludes with the story of Elsa Fischer, who agreed to donate one of her kidneys to Michelle. The second part of the series featured a story on Michelle’s daughter, Kathleen Meyer.
April has been designated as Donate Life Month in an effort to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors. Various local regional and national activities are held throughout the month to promote the gift of donation and also celebrate those lives saved through organ and tissue donation. Click HERE for information on how you can make an impact through blood or organ donation.
There was only one dissenting voice attempting to persuade Elsa Fischer from donating her kidney, and it just so happened to be coming from the would-be recipient.
But for Elsa there was never anything to contemplate. She had known Michelle Bejbl Thomas since the two were middle school students in DeKalb and for the last 25 years watched as her good friend’s life was altered because of type 1 diabetes. She also saw how doctors were struggling to find a kidney to replace the two Michelle had that were failing more each day. That made her even more determined to move ahead with the kidney transplant surgery after learning she was a match with Michelle.
“My mom and dad, sisters, [my partner] Paige, a bunch of my friends and even my doctor were completely supportive,” said Elsa, noting her friends threw her a surprise party a week before the surgery to celebrate her decision and gave her a charm in the shape of a kidney to add to her bracelet. “But Michelle, well, she kept on telling me I didn’t need to do this. Even on the day of the transplant [she told me I could back out].”
Elsa’s main inspiration for agreeing to donate a kidney was to help save the life of her friend, but that wasn’t the only reason.
“I needed to prove to myself that I could do this,” she said. “I had always been really healthy and never had a surgery or even been under anesthesia.”
The transplant, which occurred at the University of Chicago Medical Center on Dec. 7, 2004, was a success and Elsa vividly remembers walking into the intensive care unit to visit Michelle a few hours after the surgery.
“I went to see her as soon as they let me, and right away I noticed she looked so much better,” Elsa said. “She had her color back and looked much more like herself. It was great to see.”
Elsa said she needed “only a couple of days” to recover from the surgery, and noted she was able to go hiking with Paige during a vacation to California approximately three weeks later.
“I was back to my normal self almost right away and have experienced no effects [from donating a kidney,]” Elsa said. “I was able to run the Chicago Marathon a few years later and even now play in basketball and softball leagues.”
Elsa said being able to save her friend’s life through organ donation was “pretty incredible.”
“At the time [of the kidney transplant] Michelle was not working and not feeling well,” Elsa said. “Now she runs her own business and overall has more energy.”
Michelle also has a pretty good sense of humor when it comes to the kidney transplant, according to Elsa.
“She will come up to me and tell me how my kidney is doing,” Elsa said. “We do joke about it from time to time.”
While Michelle may toss around the occasional joke, she has never forgotten the life-saving gift she received.
“Michelle will send me a thank you card as the anniversary of the transplant is approaching,” Elsa said. “To be honest, I forget that it’s even coming up. I don’t think of [the transplant] as a big deal. I just think of it as helping out a friend.”
Michelle’s daughter, Kathleen, who was just 15 when her mother had the transplant, remains extremely grateful to Elsa for her generosity. Kathleen asked Elsa and Paige to be readers at her wedding last year, and said the four routinely go out for dinner or drinks.
“We have a special bond,” Elsa said of her relationship with Kathleen. “She is so appreciative of what I did for her mother.”