“More than blood brothers”

Bandmate becomes living donor for Ely man with liver failure

photo by Jim Gehrz/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Chris Henningsen (left) and Aaron Kaercher during their recent performance at the University of Minnesota-Fairview Medical Center, in Minneapolis, where Kaercher underwent a liver transplant with tissue donated by Henningsen.
Terry Jackson

ELY – Two members of a once-popular Ely band now have a new and more powerful connection than either could have ever imagined. Twenty-four year old Chris Henningsen, who joined the band Crazy Neighbors in 2009, recently donated a portion of his liver to save the life of his bandmate, 41year-old Aaron Kaercher, of Ely.

Both men say the experience has changed their lives forever. “There definitely is a spiritual moment here and I will never take anything for granted,” said Kaercher, reflecting on his remarkable journey back to health after suffering the effects of a failing liver. Kaercher was frontman and lead guitar player for the Crazy Neighbors, traveling to gigs in Iowa, Kansas, Michigan and throughout Minnesota. The band played together for five years before his growing health problems forced them to stop performing in 2012.

For Henningsen, who moved to Ely in 2009 to attend Vermilion Community College, just knowing that his friend is improving every day rather than getting worse is enormously satisfying. “Saving someone’s life is an awesome feeling,” he said, “and we are more than blood brothers now.” Henningsen says he loves music and was drawn to the sound of the Crazy Neighbors from the moment he first heard them in Ely. When he approached Kaercher about adding his mandolin and vocal harmonies to the group, the older musician agreed, and

Henningsen soon became an integral part of the traveling band.

Henningsen loved playing with the Crazy Neighbors. The band was very spontaneous, never using a setlist. “I just wanted to play music, but Kaercher was a real showman, always conversing with the audience,” said Henningsen.

A stunning diagnosis

Kaercher’s diagnosis, which came last January, was a bolt from the blue. He had scheduled an appointment at Ely Bloomenson Hospital, after experiencing an apparent build-up in fluid in his body, but had no idea his health condition was dire.

“Doctor Montana informed me my liver was failing, a helicopter was on call and something had to be done or I would die within 30 days,” said Kaercher. Troubled with what he was just told, Kaercher asked his wife Laurel if he heard it right. She confirmed he had as she cried and shook her head.

The helicopter later was canceled as Ely hospital staff were able to stabilize his condition, allowing him to be admitted into the hospital. He was discharged several days later and told he may be a candidate for a future liver transplant.

It was not long before Kaercher returned to the hospital, this time with a collapsed lung. The problems with his lungs, bloating and a huge hernia were related to his liver failure, and it was clear his condition was worsening rapidly, prompting him to seek an evaluation at the University of Minnesota. He was soon scheduled for three days of intense outpatient testing at the University’s medical center, but on the second day he was admitted into the hospital. “I was told my lung was full of liquid and ready to collapse again,” said Kaercher.

As the emergency room doctors determined whether to insert one, two or three drain tubes into his side, the transplant doctors came into the emergency room. “I overheard one of them say I could die if they proceeded, because of numerous infections,” said Kaercher. A decision was made to remove the fluid with needles through his back.

While in the hospital, Kaercher learned that a healthy liver performs more than 500 vital functions including making bile which is important for digestion, making proteins for blood clotting, removing toxins in the blood and storing sugars, fats, iron, copper and vitamins.

Kaercher was placed on the transplant list prior to leaving the hospital, but that was hardly a guarantee of a cure. According to the American Liver Association, about 17,000 adults and children are currently waiting for a donated liver to become available, and more than 1,500 die every year on stand-by for a transplant. The only way to move up on the list is to become sicker, but the demand always outweighs the availability of liver donors.

Kaercher’s social worker confirmed the statistics and said he may wait many years to receive a liver from a non-living donor. She said, “We see more people die waiting for a liver than those that receive a transplant,” suggesting Kaercher find a living donor.

Asking someone to donate a portion of their liver is not easy. Kaercher began by telling his mother, who got the word out to relatives. A sister, cousin and a friend from Ely went through the month-long process to determine if they were a match for a transplant, only to find out they were not a good match.

Signs of trouble

Henningsen became concerned during the second winter of playing with the band. “Kaercher was sick a lot that winter and we had to cancel gigs,” said Henningsen, “although things appeared to get back to normal during the summer.”

Henningsen moved to the Twin Cities in November 2012, hoping to find steady work. He stayed in close contact with his old bandmate, but Kaercher didn’t tell him of his failing health and the progression of his illness until later.

“I only became aware that Kaercher’s health was in serious jeopardy when he confided with me last February,” said Henn-ingsen.

He remained in close contact with Kaercher, who was told in May that he was dying and needed a new liver. By that time, Henningsen had already made the decision to donate a portion of his own liver, and he had a strong sense that he would be a match. “I had faith and told Kaercher I would make it through the evaluation process and become his donor,” he said.

Only one person is evaluated as a donor at a time, so Henningsen waited while Kaercher’s cousin, sister and friend went through the testing process. He was called in for an extensive health evaluation on Oct. 10. Tests included CT scans, MRI, X-rays, EKG and multiple blood tests. He met with a surgeon, a nutritionist and social worker to ensure his intention and mental status were okay. “No stone was left unturned,” said Henningsen.

Henningsen will not forget the day he was informed that he was a match for the transplant.

“I had a feeling of excitement, nervousness, relief and curiosity mixed in with other emotions,” he said.

Kaercher and Henningsen were invited to meet with one of the transplant surgeons on Nov. 6.

The surgeon made clear the potential of transplant failure and wanted each to decide if he wanted to go through with the surgery. Kaercher left the call up to Henningsen, who did not waiver. Henningsen laughed nervously and said, “I told you we are going to do this,” later admitting he did not want to let on that he was scared to death.

The day of the surgery was scheduled a month later, on Dec. 6, to allow time for Kaercher to take care of family matters and prepare for a one or two month stay in Minneapolis.

Kaercher met Henningsen early in the morning on the day of the surgery at the front door of the University of Minnesota Fairview Hospital. Kaercher was accompanied by his wife Laurel and his mother Candice, while Henningsen was with his mother Sallie, girlfriend Megan, and her mother Betsy.

A wall and curtain separated the two patients while they were prepared for surgery. Henningsen’s lead surgeon was Doctor Srinath Chinnakotla and Kaercher’s was Doctor Timothy Pruett . “We had an all-star team that included four surgeons,” said Henningsen.

Henningsen was the first to be taken into the operating room and he gave Kaercher a “thumbs up” sign as he rolled past him. “I felt so guilty thinking about my little buddy going through this,” said Kaercher.

Kaercher remembered his surgeon saying immediately after liver removal he became number one on the transplant list. “That is scary, because situations have occurred when the operating team thought the hookup went well, but the patient’s body rejected the donor’s liver instantly and subsequently died,” said Kaercher. He looked at Laurel and Candice and knew he was ready for the surgery and willing to accept the outcome.

What happened following the surgery can only be explained as a miracle. “The surgeons said the recovery was amazing, they have never seen anything like it and we are in the record books,” said Kaercher. Although he’d been told he’d be in an intensive care unit (ICU) for four days to a week, he left the ICU the day after surgery. He was discharged from the hospital within five days and was home for the holidays. “That is unprecedented,” said Henningsen, who also had a speedy recovery and was out of the hospital within six days.

The nurses told the two they were hospital celebrities due to their miraculous surgery and recovery. Some referred to them as poster childs for transplants. Doctor Chinnakotla asked if they would return to the transplant clinic and hospital for a music performance.

Two weeks post surgery the duo played in the lobby of the transplant clinic for a teary-eyed group of doctors, nurses, staff and patients. One of the surgeons spoke to the group, saying these men represent why the staff is doing this and the same outcome is what is want for everyone undergoing a transplant. The following morning the duo performed again on the hospital floor. “The experience at the clinic and hospital was very enjoyable and meaningful,” said Henningsen.

Kaercher and Henningsen now offer hope and inspiration to others who may be on a transplant list or are potential donors. “As frustrating as the process can seem, never give up and always have hope,” said Kaercher. “The event is lifesaving,” said Henningsen, “and you must have faith that the process will work.”

As for future plans, Crazy Neighbors will return this summer in some fashion, probably performing at the popular Tuesday Night Live in Ely.


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