A life reborn

Mike Strusiak receives his second chance and honors the memory of 'his angel'

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  • Mike Strusiak signs the flag for the Transplant Games this summer.

  • At The Sharing Network's 5K, Mike Strusiak leads the way.

How you can help
The need for donors is huge; less than 1/10 of onepercent of those who sign up become a donor. Every student in New Jersey schools has to go through the High School Hero program, an organ transplant awareness program. But greater awareness is needed. For further information, contact the New Jersey Sharing Network at 800-742-7365 or at www.njsharingnetwork.org.
Golf for Team Liberty
Team Liberty is holding its first annual golf outing, named “18 for Eight” for the 18 holes of golf and the eight organs that can be donated, and for the 18 people who die every day waiting for a life-saving organ. It will be held on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, at Ballyowen Golf Club at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg.
Call Mike Strusiak at 973-657-0374 or email goteamliberty@gmail.com .
Learn more about Team Liberty at their Web site, www.goteamliberty.org. They are also on Facebook.

In September, 2007, a stranger saved Mike Strusiak’s life. It was the beginning of a whole new chapter for him and his gratitude is evident.

The story starts a few years earlier. Strusiak, who has had type 1 diabetes since he was 13, faced an even greater challenge about 10 years ago when routine blood work showed serious problems.

“I went in for a routine exam and the doctor noticed irregularities in my blood work,” said Strusiak.

He learned his kidneys were failing, not because of diabetes, but from renal cancer. He was retaining too much water; it built up around his heart and lungs, sometimes making breathing difficult.

After doctors removed one kidney - the other was atrophied and not being used - he learned he would need a kidney and pancreas transplant and was put on a list. For three years he received dialysis at Hackensack Medical Center and was put on a diet to eliminate as much potassium and phosphorous as possible, something that is necessary while on dialysis. One of the most difficult restrictions for Strusiak was avoiding tomatoes.

“With me being (half) Italian, that’s not so good,” said Strusiak, 56. “You don’t have spaghetti and meatballs on Sunday.”

In addition to all of this, Strusiak was taking care of his mother, who was paralyzed and suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s. The single father of four daughters was also putting all of his girls through college.

Twelfth time's a charm

On Sept. 11, 2007 he received that call - his 12th. He had been called to St. Barnabas Medical Center 11 times before, but each time, for one reason or another, the transplant could not be performed.

“It’s so rare to get a pancreas and a kidney at the same time,” said Strusiak. “The pancreas is so delicate. It’s like taking a bar of butter and leaving it out on the table overnight.” After removal from the donor, it’s not always viable.

But this time was different. The next day, on Sept. 12, Strusiak drove himself to St. Barnabas. A young woman had died in a car accident and her organs were a perfect match for him. The surgery was a go.

The following day, all of his daughters, Lauren, Lisa, and his twins, Kelly and Katie, arrived at his bedside.

“On that day, Sept. 12, I was cured,” said Strusiak. “I was not a diabetic anymore; I could eat anything.”

And most importantly, he would live.

“My angel”

Strusiak said he had to know who gave him this great gift. He wrote an anonymous letter of gratitude to the donor family through the New Jersey Sharing Network, which promotes organ donation and works to coordinate donors and recipients. They passed it on and he eventually learned the name of the young woman whose gift had saved his life.

“My angel’s name is Kristen Theresa O’Hara,” Strusiak said. “She was 19 years old. She was an extraordinary young woman who touched many lives."

Strusiak recalled that Kristin was one of four girls in a car accident. Three of the girls died at Jersey Shore Medical Center; two of them became organ donars.

The Sharing Network

Strusiak eventually met Kristen’s parents, Agnes and Ron O’Hara, through the Sharing Network. They and their family, along with Strusiak and his, started the walk portion of the Sharing Network’s 5K event and participate every year. Strusiak admits he does whatever he can for the organization, training people, participating in events and giving speeches. His daughter, Katie, who holds a degree in biology, now works for the Sharing Network, educating staff and setting up procurement procedures at several hospitals. It moves Strusiak to know that she spends some of that time at the hospital where Kristen was.

The Sharing Network promotes the need for transplants and encourages recipients to honor their donors by participating in sports, including the Transplant Games, and demonstrating what they can do, as Strusiak says, “because of their great gift…without them we wouldn’t be here today.”

He give as much time as possible to The Sharing Network. “They know I won’t say no,” he said.

Team Liberty

As part of that dedication he belongs to and is one of the managers of Team Liberty, a group of transplant recipients and living donors — people who donate one of their kidneys — from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. They compete with other teams from across the country every other year in the Transplant Games of America, which will be held this July 11-15 in Houston, Texas.

At a previous Transplant Games, Mike won the gold medal in golf and a team medal in basketball. To honor Kristen, who was a basketball star for Jackson Memorial High School, Strusiak put the basketball medal on her memorial quilt at the Sharing Network headquarters in New Providence.

A fortunate man

“It’s been six years — going on my seventh year,” said Strusiak of his transplant. “It’s the greatest gift one could give of oneself. Not just my life; look what they did for my daughters. I was able to walk my daughter down the aisle.”

And his outlook on life is optimistic and amazing.

“People ask me ‘Why don’t you get mad?’ I say, You know, I could be looking up at roots but I’m looking down at green grass under my feet,” Strusiak said. “I’m one of the happiest and luckiest men alive. I hit the lottery for a lot more than they could pay in any lottery, state or federal.”

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