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Trailblazer of Hope

Valen Keefer is a blog writer for the Chris Klug Foundation. She interviewed Aaron to help tell his incredible story. 

We all have a story. I believe we are all here for a reason. Some people search forever for their purpose in life and then there are people like 33-year-old Aaron Whalen who create their purpose.

I am a kidney transplant recipient of 15 years and I’ve met several people who are altruistic kidney donors – someone who is willing to donate one of their kidneys to anyone in need. However, I have never met an altruistic liver donor – a person who donates a part of their liver to anyone in need. That is, until I met Aaron.

How does someone decide that they want to donate a part of their liver to save someone else’s life? For Aaron, it stems back to when he was born. Aaron was adopted and just recently, when he was 30, met his biological family. This decision was a quest for him to figure out who he was and find his place in the world.

Aaron’s act of heroism was sparked by his desire to do something significant with his life and a conversation he had with his sister, who recently graduated with a nursing degree. They talked about bone marrow donation and Aaron recalled reading somewhere how the liver will regenerate itself, as the skin does. Aaron refers to himself as a “science geek” and thought it was so cool how someone can donate a part of their liver to someone else and within six months it will regenerate to its normal size and grow within the recipient. He thought to himself, “I would like to do that someday.” And so he did!

Aaron was a Finance Manger in Wisconsin, working 70 hours a week with a lot of responsibility. He moved to Colorado last June and since he was between jobs, he thought it was a perfect time to make his difference in the world. Aaron feels he has been gifted with amazing health and if he was going to make any donation in life it would be related to his health. And so starts his liver transplant journey.

He called UCHealth in September 2017 and the process began. Aaron said UCHealth went above and beyond to make sure he was in great health and to minimize any possible risk. The liver transplant workup included: blood work, liver biopsy and an MRI. Aaron described the testing as not taking up much of his time and it was mostly waiting on results and letting doctors take a look at everything. As for the timeline, testing started in September 2017; he found out he was approved to donate part of his liver in December 2017; the transplant surgeries took place in early February 2018. Aaron said the more he went through the process, the more he needed to do it. He felt it was a responsibility and couldn’t believe he didn’t do it sooner.

On February 7, 2018, Aaron donated part of his liver to 8-year-old Manny – a young boy he had yet to meet. Aaron’s perspective on the surgery is beautiful.  “You’re going to be uncomfortable for a little bit in order for the recipient to have the opportunity to live an entire life,” he said. Aaron was in the hospital for four nights/five days, and thirty-four days after Aaron’s surgery he took a 15-mile bike ride. Now that is inspirational!

When Aaron went into surgery, he did not know who would receive part of his liver. They could not meet prior to the surgeries. However, they were allowed to send notes while healing. Aaron wrote Manny and received a note back around two weeks later. Aaron could not know who he was without permission from the family. All of this was done through UCHealth. The letter that Aaron wrote to Manny’s family included Aaron’s phone number and they called him!

Aaron expressed how cool it was to talk to Manny’s mom, who was 17 when she had Manny. Aaron expressed how Manny has had the worst luck. He learned that he was born with a super rare liver disease where his bile ducts didn’t form. “This little boy has had a really tough life, but has come out of it on top with an incredible human spirit,” he said.

A few days after speaking on the phone, Aaron drove to Denver and got to meet Manny. Aaron had so many emotions. He was happy Manny was there, amazed he was like a normal kid making fun of his dad, angry because Manny didn’t deserve all of this, and sad when they showed each other their scars and Manny’s scar was bigger than his. Aaron described meeting Manny and his family as the coolest day of his life. Today, Manny and Aaron share a very unique and special bond that only a donor and recipient can share.

It is now several months after Aaron saved Manny’s life and he no longer wonders about his place in this world. He has made the positive impact he was yearning for. Aaron is now a mentor and actively involved and sharing his story with the Liver Foundation.

In addition to Aaron being a hero and giving someone else a second chance, cycling has been a big hobby for him since his 16th birthday when his adopted father bought him a racing mountain bike. He soon participated in his first bike race and he’s been hooked ever since. Aaron was a professional cyclist, whose team raced against Lance Armstrong. He participated in the Tour of Gila.

Aaron will be joining the Chris Klug Foundation’s (CKF) 2018 Leadville Trail 100 MTB Charity Team this August to help raise money to help save lives by increasing awareness about organ and tissue donation. He is also a musician and plans on raising money for CKF’s bike race by playing acoustic guitar in Boulder, CO. Aaron’s fundraising goal is $7,000.

Aaron said the moral of his story is, “Kids like Manny deserve a chance. These kids are survivors. Give them one chance and they will be great and extraordinary people.”

There is no stopping Aaron on the trails and how he is making a difference in the lives of others. As I currently am in need of and waiting for a liver transplant, thank you, Aaron, for being a trailblazer of hope.

-Valen Keefer




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