Organ donation forges friendship, new life
WINONA — Bill Hutmacher had already come to peace with his death.
Hutmacher was born with a leaking heart valve. In 1989, at the age of 47, Hutmacher had a heart attack while playing racquetball. He underwent triple bypass surgery and went back to playing racquetball.
He remained healthy for 10 years. Then new problems forced doctors to install a pacemaker.
In December 2009, Hutmacher, who was in Florida at the time, began having heavy chest pains. His pacemaker quit working. His doctor replaced the batteries and Hutmacher was flown to Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester.
Doctors tried everything to keep his heart beating, but without a transplant there was nothing more they could do. On Jan. 8, 2010, the Winona man was hours away from being released.
"I was going home to die," Bill said.
Two days previous in Ladysmith, Wis., Carol Conklin, an attorney and owner of a private law business, was leaving the county courthouse on her way home to celebrate her husband Brian's birthday when she suffered a brain aneurysm and was rushed to a local hospital.
Fifteen minutes later Brian's phone rang. Brian's friend told him Carol was in the hospital, but would be released soon.
Five minutes later the sheriff called.
He told Brian to get to the hospital as fast as he could.
On his way to the hospital, a nurse called Brian to inform him Carol was being airlifted — to Saint Marys Hospital. When he arrived, Carol was breathing with the aid of a tube.
He knew when he saw her that "her soul and spirit was gone."
Shortly after he was approached by a representative of Life Source, an organ and tissue donation company. He needed to make a decision: Pull the breathing tube or keep Carol on life support to save her organs for donation.
He walked outside for a smoke. He decided he wasn't going to donate his wife's organs. He and Carol had agreed long ago that they wanted to die naturally. No life support, no tubes.
Then, as he walked back into the hospital, a voice inside his head urged him to reconsider.
He signed the paperwork.
As Bill prepared to leave the hospital for the last time, a surgeon walked into his room.
He said the words Bill never expected to hear: We have a heart for you.
But there was a problem. The heart had slight arterial deterioration, meaning there was a chance it was unusable. The only way doctors could know would be to proceed with surgery. Bill could wake up with the same heart ready to fail him.
Bill signed the paperwork and was rushed to surgery.
He woke up a full day later to find tubes coming out of his stomach and mouth.
And a new heart beating in his chest.
Without the ability to speak, Bill reached for a small whiteboard and wrote a single word:
Bill made a complete recovery in months. He went back to work at Sugar Loaf Ford. He started playing racquetball again. Against college students.
He was moved to write a letter expressing his experience and appreciation. He sent it to Life Source, which forwarded it to Brian.
The letter arrived on Brian's birthday, one year after his wife's aneurysm.
Brian had received letters from other appreciative recipients of Carol's organs, but Hutmacher's stood out.
"He put his true feelings behind it," said Conklin. He and Bill began writing letters and emails back and forth.
"How could I have been the chosen one to receive such a gift?" Bill wrote to Brian in his first letter. "I will never know or understand why I was saved and another died to give me life."
"I have never regretted donating Carol's organs," Brian wrote back. "I am glad you got her heart."
"Every day I think of Carol and get emotional as I wish she was still with you," Bill wrote in a later letter.
"I wish I could have been the one to have been able to help her."
In late May, Bill invited Brian and his family to be honorary guests at a June 26 event Bill and his co-worker JoAn Moham had organized, a motorcycle run called Ride for Life to raise money and increase awareness about the importance of organ donation.
He also invited Brian to dinner before the run, so the two could meet for the first time.
When the day arrived, Brian was nervous. He wasn't sure what to expect, what he would say.
He and his family arrived at the restaurant to find Bill and his family waiting to greet them. They hugged, and welcomed each other into the other's family.
"It felt like we knew them our entire lives," Brian said.
When Brian pulled into Sugar Loaf Ford the following Sunday and saw 62 motorcycles ready to ride in the name of organ donation, the first thing that came to his mouth was a single word: