Families gather in Yelm to celebrate 20-year connection from double-lung transplant

When Lyn Gryske met Kevin Wohlers, the recipient of her son Steven’s donated lungs, she asked whether she could touch his chest.

“I just wanted to feel the lungs go up and down,” Gryske recalled on Friday afternoon, blinking away tears.

Nineteen years ago, Gryske, and her husband, Harry, of Green Lake, Wisconsin, saw a television news story about Wohlers, a Seattle marathon runner who had received a double-lung transplant about 13 months earlier.

They said they knew in their hearts that Wohlers was the recipient of their late son’s lungs. After confirming it through letters, they decided to meet each other in person.

The connection was instant, powerful and real.

“They feel like family,” said Wohlers, 55, of Bellevue. “I have his lungs keeping me alive. Their family’s blood circulates through me. They’re family.”

“He’s our son,” Harry Gryske said.

The donor and recipient families and their friends gathered Friday at Prairie Hotel & Conference Center in Yelm to celebrate a different type of Thanksgiving — one with hugs, tears, pictures, memories, smiles and gratitude.

“I remember listening to the helicopter landing on the roof with the lungs and heart,” said Wohlers’ sister Kim McCrea, 56, of Rainier.

In addition to marking a 20-year success for the lung transplant, the event was to celebrate the family’s connection with the Gryskes and help spread the word that organ donors can change lives, said McCrea, who organized the gathering.

“Knowing your donor family is not for everybody, but for us it was closure,” she said. “They lost a son, and we’ve had 20 years of Kevin that we would never have had (without the transplant).”

The families try to celebrate Thanksgiving together about every other year, Wohlers said. They also have joined together to promote organ donation.

The Gryskes said their 24-year-old son had depression, and had tried to commit suicide.

“When the doctors told us he would not survive or leave the hospital, we asked if he could make an organ donation,” Lyn Gryske said. “To think my son lives on, it’s an incredible thought.”

Wohlers has cystic fibrosis and was on the United Network for Organ Sharing wait list for about four hours before he was paged by the hospital. Washington residents can register to be an organ donor with their driver’s license.

Before his transplant Oct. 21, 1994, he was on oxygen around the clock, and was getting his will and other affairs in order.

Since the transplant, he’s run several marathons, and is an engineer at Honeywell Aerospace. He has been active in cystic fibrosis, transplant and organ donation groups.

“Organ donation works,” Wohlers said.

Andy Gryske, 41, of Green Lake, Wisconsin, said he feels lucky to still have a connection to his brother through Wohlers.

“It’s such a unique relationship,” he said. “People think of it as a loss, but they don’t understand what we gained.”