The Spirit of Giving
by Ed Scott
This month’s piece is about a skydiver, but beyond that it is not about skydiving. You should keep reading anyway.
Jeff Bramstedt, 47, spent 13 years as a U.S. Navy SEAL and was a member of the Navy Parachute Team. After leaving the military, he worked in the film industry as a stunt performer (and still does occasionally). He performed demo jumps, pitched drogues as a tandem instructor and formed a ministry—Life of Valor. In early 2016, he and two partners bought Skydive San Diego in Jamul, California. Along the way, he and his wife were raising three children. Life was good.
In August 2017, Bramstedt was attending the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Swoop Freestyle World Championships in Denmark when his wife, Robin, texted him about a friend whose medical condition was getting dire. Melinda Ray was a 35-year-old wife and mother of three who was suffering from a disease that was quickly destroying her liver. She didn’t score high on the transplant list to qualify for a liver from a deceased donor; she had to find a living donor. She was desperate. She had months, maybe weeks, and pleaded on Facebook for a liver donor. Without hesitation, Jeff said he’d do it.
The body’s skin and liver are the only two organs that can quickly regenerate, so you can lose up to two-thirds of your liver and it will grow back. But so much has to go right for a successful transplant, and so much can go wrong. In hindsight, you might think this match was preordained. Both Jeff and Melinda do. Jeff knew from the get-go that blood type wouldn’t be an issue. He’s a universal donor. But because he was adopted, he didn’t know his genetic history. Predisposition for diabetes, for instance, would be disqualifying. So, in the first of four trips (at his own expense) to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, he began the most thorough physical exam he’d ever endured. As he passed screening after screening, doctors found one surprise: His liver was freakishly large, nearly one-quarter larger than most. That was good. They would need to take only 30 percent of his liver, not the usual 60 percent.
Every year about 14,000 people in the U.S. need a liver, and only about 8,000 receive a donation. All but 350 donations come from deceased people who signed up as organ donors. Living donors are rare and special. Screening is rigorous and often disqualifying. And the transplant is risky: According to Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret, UCHealth’s chief of transplant surgery, the surgery is even more significant than that for a kidney donation, which is severe.
Doctors performed the two 10-hour surgeries on December 4 at UCHealth. Four months later, both families were back to their normal lives. The story got out and Jeff underwent a round of publicity with the likes of “ABC World News,” “Good Morning, America” and People magazine. He submitted to the recognition only because the publicity could help others consider being an organ donor.
These two families are in contact nearly every day, and Melinda has committed to making a tandem jump with Jeff. “I feel I have a little sister now. We literally share the same DNA,” Jeff told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He also has a message for skydivers: “The majority of living donors are those who’ve served in the military, law enforcement or as firefighters. I figure skydivers are made of the same stuff. If you’re thinking about it, call me.”