It’s been near two years since Ed Kriesel said he’d received “the greatest Christmas gift ever.”
Actually, the Ahwatukee man’s gift came in April 2019, when he received word that a donor had been found for a long-needed double-lung transplant.
Kriesel had been diagnosed in 2008 with a genetic liver and lung disorder that had reduced him from an active athletic man to someone who relied on an oxygen tank to stay alive.
“I’d wanted a transplant for several years because my quality of life wasn’t very good,” he said. “You have to be sick enough to meet certain criteria to be considered for transplant.
“You get a score and are ranked accordingly; the higher the score the higher you are on the transplant list. Once lungs are available, they go through a matching process and the first one on the list that matches gets the call.”
Friends throughout Ahwatukee held fundraisers to help him should the call come.
And on April 19, 2019, his daughter Brianna’s birthday, he received his new lungs in a four-hour surgery.
The lung transplant surgery was successful and by the end of 2019, Kriesel was able to climb a flight of stairs and ride his bike, a lifelong treasured pastime he had been unable to pursue as his lungs worsened.
Last month, Kriesel met the parents of his donor, a 24-year-old Kason Rens of Peoria, who was struck down April 17, 2019, by a 21-year-old woman who was texting when she hit him.
Kason Rens, an avid hiker who loved photography, had just completed a hike in Papago Park and was struck minutes after he shot a selfie of himself wearing a broad smile.
Kason had years earlier signed up as an organ donor, prompting his mother Rhonda Rens to reflect on the youngest of her five children, “He was generous in death, as he was in life.”
Due to transplant regulations, organ recipients rarely are told anything about their donor or survivors.
But Kriesel, 59, connected with Kason’s family after writing a letter that a social worker at the hospital forwarded to them.
“I couldn’t put any personal information in the letter, not even the hospital’s name,” Krisel said. “I received a letter back from my donor’s mom a couple of months later through the same process.”
The only information Kriesel had at that time was that his donor was male.
“Once letters are exchanged, you can reply with more personal information. I sent a letter back and told them I would really like to know more about him and to possibly talk on the phone or even meet in person. I left her my name and phone number.”
Four months later, Kriesel had assumed the family would not be responding and he resigned himself to the fact it was “totally understandable.”
One day, while at the gym, his cell phone buzzed and the screen indicated an unfamiliar number.
“Normally I wouldn’t answer but for some reason, this time I did. The voice on the other end said ‘Is this Ed Kriesel?’ I said ‘Yes’ and he said ‘My name is Jeff Rens, I believe you received my son’s lungs.’ I was absolutely shocked,” he recalled.
Though he said he’d long been thinking of what he’d say should the donor’s family contact him, he found himself nearly speechless.
“At that moment, I couldn’t think of anything to say except how grateful I was to have received the gift of life,” Kriesel said. “We talked a while and he told me everything that happened, and more about his son.
“It was a great conversation. I didn’t know it at the time but later found out that he had a very difficult time after we hung up because he said he could hear his son’s lungs every time I took a breath.”
Kriesel and the family agreed to meet Nov. 5 at the Rens’ Peoria home.
“That day was so emotional for me and I’m sure for them. Thankfully my daughter Bri was able to go with me which was a big help. Here we were walking up to a home to meet complete strangers and at the same time feeling an amazing connection to them.”
The emotional meeting lasted more than two hours and they relayed more about the circumstances surrounding their son’s death.
“They shared so much about their son and family. There were hugs, tears, and some laughter. He had just finished hiking. He loved hiking and taking photos of saguaros and was crossing the street when a young woman driver struck him. I was told by the parents she admitted texting to the police officers and it was captured on their cam.”
They said the young woman was charged with driving while distracted.
Kriesel, who has two children – Blake, 28, and Brianna 24 – said he felt their pain.
“This young man lost his life and just imagine what the family has gone through, and is still going through because of a senseless act. I’m sure those who have lost a child know exactly what I’m talking about,” he said.
“And yet, at only 24, he had the forethought and unselfishness to become an organ donor. I believe he told his mom ‘If I don’t need them anymore, why shouldn’t someone else benefit from them.’
“He saved five lives with his generosity. I’m here today and am able to spend another Christmas with my kids because of him. I’m able to ride my bike which I never thought I’d be able to do again. I ride all over Ahwatukee and think of him every time.”
Understandably, Kriesel is a strong advocate for organ transplant registration.
“Organ donation is so important. An estimated 20 people die every day waiting for an organ,” he said.
He confessed the transplant medications brought other health issues he hadn’t experienced before - including type 2 diabetes.
“Most people think that once you heal from a transplant operation your life goes back to normal, which is far from the truth. The recovery and medications you have to take, are really tough on your body and can cause many other issues. You take steps forward and steps backwards,” said Kriesel. “You end up living a new normal.”
“As the transplant team said prior to my transplant ‘You trade one set of problems for another!’ When the alternative is death, the decision becomes much easier,” he said. “Unless you’ve gone through an organ transplant or are close to someone who has, it’s really hard to understand the long term impact it has on your life.”
Since his life-saving transplant, he’s living his life to the fullest he’s able, and that includes going to the gym to continually strengthen his body, and once again, riding his bike around Ahwatukee.
“I am immunocompromised now, and that’s because anti-rejection drugs suppress your immune system and that’s forever. So, I have to be very careful. And I’m being careful. But I’ve got a brand new set of lungs and I’m not going to just sit around,” he said, adding this past summer he visited his brother, other family and friends in Minnesota where he’d grown up.
“There are times when it gets frustrating because of some of the limitations and not feeling that great a lot of the days and dealing with diabetes and acid reflux, mostly from all the medications. And I’m still having quite a bit of pain around the incision site,” he said.
“Then I step back and think of the things I can do now that I couldn’t a year and a half ago, and think of what the donor has given me and what the donor’s family must be going through and then the pity party is over!! I’ve been given the greatest Christmas gift ever and feel really blessed to have a second chance!”
Kriesel, as well as the Rens, have become a strong advocate for no texting while driving.
“I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point but is texting while driving really worth the risk of taking someone’s life?” he asked. “I know for the Rens family it certainly is not!”
Information on organ donations: OrganDonor.gov