When Chris Staehlin and his wife asked mutual friends about a stranger who lived a few miles away, the same words kept coming back: Good father. Good husband. Would do anything for his children.
Those words resonated with Staehlin, a Frankfort dad with two boys of his own.
“That’s something that I want to be known for,” Staehlin said. “Whatever other things that people will say, that’s something that I want people to say about me as well.”
Months later, the two Illinois men met in a Chicago hospital room with their crying families, after Staehlin donated 60% of his liver, dad to dad.
It all began with a night of social media scrolling on the couch.
Last summer, Chris’ wife, Sarah, was looking through Facebook and came across the face of Dan Droszcz, who lives in Tinley Park. She turned to her husband and said, “You always give blood. This is a little different, right? But you would do it.”
The next morning, while driving to his job as a pharmacist, Staehlin, 35, asked his wife to send over the flyer. Days later, he reached out to the number on it, which connected him to transplant coordinators at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Meanwhile, Droszcz, 52, and his wife were scrambling to circulate the plea for a liver — the only remaining option they realistically had to extend his life, they said. After getting diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in 2021, the couple turned to strangers and social media.
“The conversation was: If we don’t do something, I may never get a liver,” he said. “We need to do something.”
Droszcz, who sells orthopedic equipment, posted the flyer in each hospital where he worked. His wife, Nancy, who works in a school, posted the flyer in the school and circulated it among education colleagues. And they hoped for the spread of social media to find its way to someone who might be able to help.
Since that night on the couch, for the Staehlins, the conversation circled around one simple thought: What would they want someone to do for them?
One day last June, Staehlin arrived at Northwestern for a day of evaluation to become a donor. His phone call had been followed by paperwork, which was followed by an invitation to return to the hospital.
That day, he met a nurse, a psychiatrist, members of the surgery team, a social worker and someone called a donor advocate who focused solely on his interests — someone who helped him understand the implications of the procedure and assured him he could change his mind if he needed. They discussed things such as how long he’d be away from his children.
People interested in finding out more about organ donation can find resources here.
Dr. Daniela Ladner, a transplantation surgeon at Northwestern who assisted in Staehlin’s surgery, said many people are unaware of the option to become a living donor, or the need for donors.
“People don’t know that you can’t live without a liver, so somebody whose liver completely fails will ultimately die,” Ladner said.
Living donations are rare but effective. Out of the 9,528 liver transplants in 2022, just 603 were from a living donor, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. As of Monday, more than 10,000 people in the U.S. were waiting for a liver donation. The federal Health Resources and Services Administration reports that 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant.
“A little part of me was dying every day,” Droszcz said, “and I probably would still be waiting. And part of me would be getting sicker and sicker, just waiting. Thank God for this person.”
Unlike other organs, the matching requirements are simply the same blood type. People can donate up to 70% of their own liver, and it will regrow in months or even weeks, Ladner said. And living transplants are ideal because they come from a healthy donor, are immediately transplanted and surgeries can be planned in advance.
Children can also benefit from a living liver donation.
“Most people are really good people, and most people really want to help other people,” Ladner said. “And given the opportunity and the knowledge, they will.”
The Droszcz family received a call last summer, telling them a donor was available and willing. Surgery was set for Aug. 24.
“It was unreal,” Droszcz said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
That morning, the Staehlins walked into Northwestern. From social media, they knew what the Droszcz family looked like. Silently, Staehlin considered that the couple standing by the elevator might be the Droszczs.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘I think that was them,’ and she said, ‘That was definitely them.’”
Moments later, they entered a separate elevator.
He did not, he said, want to meet Droszcz just yet. He wanted to save the stranger, and if he was honest, himself, from emotional investment and disappointment should anything go wrong.
Both men were in surgery for hours. Three days later, Staehlin walked 5 miles in the hospital halls. The surgery was on a Wednesday; he was discharged on a Saturday. These days, “I’m back to normal,” he said.
For Dan, the process was a bit more involved. It took a multidisciplinary team almost a year to treat the cancer and help him become eligible for the transplant. Before the transplant, he had radiation and surgery, which kept the cancer contained enough for a transplant to be possible. He stayed in the hospital for a week after the transplant.
Days after the surgery, Staehlin appeared in the doorway of Droszcz’s hospital room.
“How’s my liver treating you?” he said. The two men, both in hospital gowns, embraced as Staehlin bent toward Droszcz in his bed.
“It’s treating me good,” Droszcz said through tears. Within minutes, Staehlin was meeting the family, including Droszcz’s children.
“We’re parents too,” Sarah Staehlin told them. They showed pictures of their boys, 4 and 7. “We knew you were a dad, and you need to be around for your kids.”
They talked about playing golf, about maybe starting by seeing a baseball game together. Droszcz is a Cubs fan; Staehlin roots for the Sox. Staehlin jokingly asked, “How do you feel being part White Sox fan now?”
Since then, the two men have gotten together for walks in the neighborhood, for dinner, for lunch. They talk about their kids. Droszcz had coached his kids in soccer while they were growing up; Staehlin is coaching his boys in baseball and basketball now.
Droszcz said his two sons and his daughter, all teenagers, understood. It added to his pain, knowing that they knew what his diagnosis could mean.
“They all took it really hard,” he said. “They’re doing good now.”
Alison Bowen is a freelancer.