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Bike racer's death brings life to 5 organ recipients
By LAWRENCE SUSSMAN
Posted: May 13, 2005
Mequon - Matt Wittig didn't know four years ago that his signature on his driver's license would result in five strangers getting a chance to live longer.
He couldn't have known then, at the age of 16, that his death four years later would elevate him to hero status in the eyes of his family and of those strangers who needed organ transplants to have a chance at survival. The 5 strangers - 4 of them from southeast Wisconsin - received one or more of Wittig's organs in transplant surgeries that occurred Friday, hours after his death Thursday.
Wittig, 20, succumbed to head injuries he suffered May 7 while participating in a bicycle race in Muskego.
Wittig's mother, Susan, said the decision to be an organ donor had been made by her son 4 years ago.
"One of the reasons Matt wanted a driver's license was to say that he would be an organ donor," Susan Wittig said. "He was as excited to say that he would be a donor as he was to drive.
"That's the kind of kid he was," she added. "He had a kind, giving soul and heart."
Despite Matt Wittig's choice to be an organ donor, though, his family still faced an agonizing decision to keep him on a respirator and continue a steady supply of blood and oxygen to his organs, preserving them for transplant.
Cardiac cases account for the largest number of deaths in the United States. That prevents organ donations, because the organs are deprived of a continuous blood and oxygen supply, said Tim Olsen, community development coordinator for the Wisconsin Donor Network.
Brain injuries, though, normally allow major organs to keep receiving the required blood and oxygen, he said.
Susan Wittig said the Wittig family made the decision to keep Matt on the respirator.
"The reason that we chose to wait for brain death was so that it would allow the optimum number of organs to be saved, which we as a family felt was in Matt's heart," she said.
"Not only did he have a strong athletic heart," she added, "but his heart was truly the essence of who he is."
A passion for bicycling
A licensed U.S. Cycling Federation racer, Matt Wittig was injured during a Wisconsin Cup bicycle race in Muskego County Park on May 7. He was pulling away from the pack of riders when his right foot slipped out of a pedal, his right knee struck the handlebars and he was flung over the bars onto the pavement, said Hans Higdon, a fellow rider and event organizer.
Wittig suffered head injuries. He was wearing a helmet, but he likely was traveling 25 to 30 mph when the accident occurred, Higdon said.
Wittig, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was involved in a similar serious bicycling accident last spring. He was an officer in the UW Cycling Club.
Even after the first accident, he continued racing this fall because "that was his passion," his mother said. "This was the light that kept him going."
His family supported Wittig's decision to get back into racing, she said. "We will never regret that he went back on his bike."
Matt Wittig was flown from the scene of the May 7 accident by Flight for Life helicopter to Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Wauwatosa. He was declared brain dead Thursday morning and his organs were harvested Thursday night, said his brother, Mark Wittig.
On Friday, the organs were transplanted into four people from southeastern Wisconsin and one from Indiana.
The recipients include:
• A man in his mid-30s who received Wittig's heart.
• A woman in her late 40s who received his lungs.
• A woman in her mid-50s who received his liver.
• An Indiana man in his early 30s, who received one of Wittig's kidneys.
• A man in his late 20s who received Wittig's other kidney and his pancreas.
The enormity of Matt Wittig's gift and the even larger loss felt by his family wasn't lost on Olsen of the Wisconsin Donor Network.
"It's beneficial to the people who receive the organ transplants, but it's tragic when anyone dies young and suddenly like that," Olsen said.
Wittig's tissues also were harvested. Olsen said they could have included bone segments, veins, skin, his corneas and connective tissue, such as cartilage, ligaments and tendons.
"These tissues can be used to help up to 75 people," Olsen said. "They are considered life enhancing."
As of May 6, more than 95,000 people were waiting for organ transplants in the United States, according to the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
In addition to his mother and father, John, Matt Wittig is survived by two older brothers, John Jr. and Mark, and his grandmothers, Mary Wittig and Virginia Lemberger.
Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday at the Schmidt & Bartelt Funeral Home, 10280 N. Port Washington Road, Mequon.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. James Catholic Church, 2700 W. Mequon Road, Mequon.
Burial will follow the services at Resurrection Cemetery and Mausoleum, 9400 W. Donges Bay Road, Mequon.
The family suggests memorials to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, P.O. Box 130819, Houston, TX 77219-0818.