One family's tragedy gives life to others through organ donation
A Janesville family wants to turn their personal tragedy into hope for other families. Five-year-old Caleb Bertagnoli died after a tack become lodged in his wind pipe. His family decided to donate his organs. Kyle Geissler reports. A fund has been set up to help the Bertagnolis with Caleb's medical and funeral expenses. If you'd like to donate, visit Janesville branches of Johnson Bank at 1 S. Main St., 2021 Holiday Drive or 1309 N. Wright Road. A benefit will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Pontiac Convention Center, 2809 N. Pontiac Drive, Janesville. The event will include a silent auction, DJ and performance by Jesse Aron, Elvis tribute artist.
A fund has been set up to help the Bertagnolis with Caleb's medical and funeral expenses. If you'd like to donate, visit Janesville branches of Johnson Bank at 1 S. Main St., 2021 Holiday Drive or 1309 N. Wright Road.
A benefit will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Pontiac Convention Center, 2809 N. Pontiac Drive, Janesville. The event will include a silent auction, DJ and performance by Jesse Aron, Elvis tribute artist.
JANESVILLE As a middle child, 5-year-old Caleb was good at sharing.
So when he died, his parents had no doubt he would want to share his organs.
"If Caleb had had the chance to get asked that question, he would have done it in a heartbeat," his mother, LeAnn Bertagnoli, said.
Caleb's story is tragic, but it gave hope to several families that received his organs for their children.
Caleb was a typical little boy, his parents said. He loved playing outside, fishing and digging in the dirt. He was messy and always seemed to need bandages or stitches.
He could still talk Dec. 13 when he told his parents he was choking on a thumbtack. The tack was lodged in his windpipe, and he eventually went into cardiac arrest and lost oxygen to his brain for about 15 minutes.
For three days, his parents, Dan and LeAnn, thought he would make it. He was transferred from Mercy Hospital in Janesville to American Family Children's Hospital, part of the UW-Madison hospital system. Doctors there took out the tack and put him into a coma, trying to cool his body to prevent swelling on the brain.
Doctors thought he would survive with some brain damage as they brought him out of the coma. But that night, his temperature and heart rate spiked as his brain started to swell.
Caleb was pronounced dead at 10:15 p.m. Dec. 16. The doctors asked the Bertagnolis if they wanted to donate his organs.
"We both agreed to it right away," Dan said.
Hundreds of people around the country had been praying for Caleb through Internet prayer chains, LeAnn said. Those prayers weren't answered, but she wanted to help answer the prayers of other families.
"It's the worst feeling in the world, and if we could take that away …" she said. "I wish I could have heard that mother and father's phone call that they got."
After Caleb was pronounced dead, doctors flew in from all over the country to take his organs to other sick children. One got his heart, another got his lungs and two got pieces of his liver. His pancreas, intestines, corneas and kidneys also were donated, his parents said.
"You try to take the mental image of what's going to happen to your child out of your mind," LeAnn said. "You have to take that away and just think, 'They don't do him any good anymore.'"
Children under 18 make up about 10 percent of organ donors, said Dr. Tony D'Alessandro, interim chairman of the transplantation division at UW-Madison. Thankfully, they make up only about 2 percent of people waiting for organs.
Still, there are only about 800 child donors a year and more than 2,000 children on the waiting list, he said.
Children usually need smaller organs than adults, though they sometimes can receive kidneys or pieces of livers from their parents.
"They clearly are in need, and we don't have quite enough (organs)," D'Alessandro said.
Between 80 and 90 percent of parents who lose children donate their organs.
"There is a comfort that comes from being able to donate," D'Alessandro said. "There's some solace that the families obtain even though their child couldn't be saved."
That's how the Bertagnolis feel. They hope to meet the recipients of Caleb's organs someday, even though they have no idea what they want to say to those families.
For now, they take life one day at a time. Their other children, 7-year-old Cole and 3-year-old Caidee, understand that Caleb is in heaven, they said.
"It's making it a little easier for us to hear them talk like that," Dan said.
They don't know how to thank the hundreds of people who prayed for them and the dozens of people who have brought them food, Christmas presents and donations toward Caleb's medical care and burial expenses.
Dan and LeAnn never thought much about organ donation before, but they'll be forever tied to it now. They've already told Cole about what happened to Caleb's organs.
"He's already told us now that he thinks it was good and he likes that idea," Dan said.