Organ donation inspiration for Greiner's year-long adventure
By Tom Larson
Kristie has a photograph of her daughter, Annie, in a frame. Right next to it is a photo of Mike Greiner, his wife Sheri and kids Levi and Chloe.
The Greiners aren't related to Kristie, but a very close kinship exists. Every morning that Mike Greiner rises and sets out on his day, Kristie knows that Annie is with him. And every morning, Mike rises and thanks Annie for his good health. Two people who never knew each other are keeping each other alive.
That's the beautiful, priceless legacy of organ donation.
Seven years ago this month, Mike Greiner, 41, received a kidney and pancreas transplant from Annie after her death at age 21. The Greiners are so thankful for what Annie and her family have done for them that they've dedicated a year of their lives to travel to all 50 states and champion organ donation.
"I think it's a solvable problem," said Mike, whose family plans to spend a week in each state to encourage people to become donors. "There are about 108,000 people on (organ donation) waiting lists, and 18 people die every day. It's only because there are not enough organs. That's what pushes us on our mission."
Mike Greiner's mother, Karen, is a Hancock native, and his father, LeRoy, grew up in Morris. Mike has several relatives in the Morris, Hancock and Benson areas, and the family recently made their way to Minnesota, the 14th state on their year-long journey.
Before moving on to Wisconsin, which is where Mike received his transplant, the family spent weeks in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, California, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Minnesota.
The plan is to spend the summer months in the northern states and move to the southern states during the winter. In addition to spreading the word about organ donation, the Greiners also are scouting out locations to call home once their year-long adventure is finished. They sold their home and most of their belongings in Morten, Ill., before hitting the road.
"We had garage sale after garage sale," Sheri said, adding that the family closed the sale on their home in April. "We left that day because we had nowhere to go anyway. We walked out of the bank and looked at each other: 'What do we do?' "
Mike's parents had moved to Illinois by the time he was born, and he was diagnosed with diabetes at age 5. He suffered from kidney problems since he was 11, but it wasn't until 2001 that became apparent something had to be done.
"That's when the doctor told me, 'We need to talk about a transplant,' " Mike said.
The process isn't as easy as putting a name on a list. It took six months just to get a review appointment and another month to get on the list. By June 2003, doctors were so concerned about Mike's failing kidneys that discussions turned to dialysis.
Despite having an A blood type - the easiest to match - Mike spent six weeks on the transplant list because of a shortage of organs. He even got on Wisconsin's waiting list because the list in Illinois was two to three years.
It was the longest six months of my life," Mike said. "That's one of the things that inspired the trip. Waiting for a phone call for your life just doesn't seem right."
Mike received a call after only six days on the list but the donation didn't pan out. Sheri began buying just a few groceries every trip because the family never knew when it might have to uproot for an extended stay in Wisconsin. As the days dragged into months, the family's routine returned. It might have been the blessing they needed.
"I had just swiped my (debit) card at the store with big bags of groceries when the call came," she said with a smile.
"The second time, when the call came, your response is always, 'Really?' " Mike said with a laugh. "Like they're going to prank you on something like that."
The Greiners got the kids lined up to stay with relatives and took off on the four hour drive to Madison, Wis. Doctors waited overnight to set up the surgery. The Greiners were expecting the dramatic goodbye and good luck.
"We thought it would be like a movie, where we get that last embrace," Mike said, smiling. "But they just came in my room and wheeled me away. We didn't get the movie moment."
What they got was much better. The transplant of Annie's organs went perfectly. Sheri got a cot and was able to stay by Mike's side during the first week of recovery.
"That week in the hospital was one of the best in my life," Mike said. "The whole week was focused on healing. Your whole life is suddenly in focus."
So was his future.
The Greiners almost immediately began thinking about the trip but had to wait until the children were old enough to remember it. They also began homeschooling the kids so that they wouldn't have to abruptly pull them out of a school setting. The kids did research on all the states so the family could pick out interesting things to do. Levi and Chloe also set funs goals: Levi's is to play miniature golf in every state, and Chloe vows to see an animal in each state.
"And not just a rabbit or something," she said, smiling.
"We always wanted to travel to all 50 states," said Mike, who is able to run his business, Yellow Logo, online. "After the transplant, we had a reason."
The Greiners are working with Donate Life, which is a LifeSource organization, on their trip. During their stay in Minnesota they visited the Stearns County Fair in Sauk Centre to spread the word on organ donation, and they also had events planned in the Twin Cities.
And the word is this: "It takes less than eight minutes to save eight lives," Mike said of signing up to be an organ donor. "In Minnesota, it takes only about five minutes. When you count corneas and tissue, each donor can help up to 50, 60 people"
Anyone can sign up at any time to be an organ donor; it's not restricted to when a person renews a drivers license. They have a blog at Donate Life, challenging each state they visit to register the most donors. So far, Washington is leading. They also are getting support from donor families like Annie's.
"They're so excited because they know what a difference it can make," Sheri said.
With those thoughts foremost in their minds, the Greiners continue on their journey, recruiting new donors and acknowledging the greatest gift anyone could ever receive.
"We can't say thank you enough for what we've received," Sheri said. "This is a way to give back, and part of our thank you is living and carrying on Annie's legacy."