Stepson's kidney donation was not in vain

Earlier this month Winchell received an award from the American Red Cross in Southeastern Wisconsin for the kidney donation to his stepfather.

The first time Dan Wenkman came to dinner, Chris Winchell put his shoe in the freezer.

Not to be mean. That was just their relationship - filled with love and deadpan humor.

Shortly after they both awoke from surgery last fall, Winchell walked into Wenkman's hospital room and gave his stepfather a hug. Then the good-natured ribbing resumed. Wenkman, whose nurse was pretty, young and female, asked Winchell about his nurse. Winchell's nurse happened to be male.

Despite the surgery scars, Winchell felt no pain laughing with his stepdad.

Winchell could immediately see the change in Wenkman. He looked healthy. He looked happy. He was at peace.

One of Winchell's kidneys was now inside Wenkman. His stepdad no longer needed to spend hours every week on a dialysis machine.

Wenkman was born with undersized kidneys, which didn't pose a problem until a few years ago, when they began to fail. Eventually he needed a transplant.

When tests showed he was a match for his stepfather, Winchell immediately stepped forward to give a piece of himself to the man who dearly loved Winchell's mother and who shared with Winchell his love for sports and the outdoors, a man whom Winchell considered a father even though they didn't share DNA.

Winchell, 34, a boom operator on KC-135 Stratotanker refueling planes, didn't hesitate even when he knew he couldn't fly for many months. He took time off from his job with the Wisconsin Air National Guard 128th Air Refueling Wing based at Mitchell International Airport. Winchell, who is single, has deployed numerous times overseas in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This time his help was needed at home.

"I didn't do it just for Dan, I did it for the whole family," Winchell said as he petted his German shepherd, Layla, at his Whitefish Bay apartment. "After he got sick, my mom had to mow the lawn and drive him to doctor appointments."

Wenkman, 68, had always been an active guy. He attended University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point on a football scholarship, was an avid runner and skied in the Birkebeiner. He spent his career in education and was an elementary school administrator in the Jefferson School District before retiring several years ago. Wenkman and Peggy Winchell dated for almost seven years before they married in 1995.

'What a blessing'

Wenkman's family and friends saw him gradually wear down to the point where 12 hours each week, spread over three days, were spent on a dialysis machine.

The number of people waiting for transplants in the United States far outstrips the number of available organs. So Winchell, his younger brother Matt and Wenkman's daughter underwent tests to see if they were compatible.

"Lo and behold Chris was there right within the family, a suitable match. What a blessing," said Dave Anderson, a close friend and college fraternity brother of Wenkman's. "I know Dan was extremely proud Chris would be willing to make that sacrifice."

As time grew close for the twin operations at UW Hospital, Wenkman frequently told Winchell it was OK if he wanted to change his mind and back out. Winchell was resolute.

The day of the delicate surgeries was nerve-racking for Peggy Wenkman. Many organ recipients don't know the identity of their donor, but Peggy Wenkman was in an unusual situation - she knew and loved both donor and recipient.

"When it's a (deceased) donor, you don't really have that connection and you think they're wonderful for doing that, giving the gift of life, but you don't have that concern and fear as you do when it's family members. Chris took it upon himself to do this. Dan told him numerous times Chris you don't need to do this," she said.

Winchell was sore for a while but was surprised at how quickly he bounced back from donating a kidney.

"My first thought was it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I thought it would be weeks of pain. Like most things, it's worse in your mind," Winchell said.

He's now back flying full time with the Wisconsin Air National Guard.

Earlier this month Winchell received an award from the American Red Cross in Southeastern Wisconsin for the kidney donation to his stepfather. The Brave Hearts awards, which celebrate lifesaving achievements of heroes, were handed out at an event at Boerner Botanical Gardens. Winchell was nominated by his younger brother.

Wenkman wasn't there to see Winchell receive the award.

Though Winchell's stepdad almost immediately bounced back after receiving his kidney, the family's happiness was short-lived. About a month after the operation, Wenkman got sick from infections. He held on for several months but died in February at UW Hospital.

"At first I was angry. It didn't make sense. This wasn't the way it was supposed to go," Winchell said. "But it was great to see him so healthy even if it was for a few weeks. He was given a chance. I'd do it again."

Near the end, Wenkman knew his life was ending. Attached to a ventilator, he couldn't talk but motioned for Winchell and his mother to come close. It was just the three of them in the hospital room.

Wenkman held a laminated card with symbols for "I'm hungry," "I'm in pain" and "I'm thirsty."

He looked at Winchell, held up the card and pointed to "I love you." Then he pointed to "Thank You."