Joy transcends language barrier as organ transplant patient meets donor's family

Dr. Witkowski with Ilena Mach and Mari

Organ recipient Irena Mach, 76, speaks Polish. The relatives of the late Mari Behnke speak English.

Mach and her donor family exchanged shy smiles in September at the Polish-American Transplant Center (PATC) at the University of Chicago Medicine. Mach bashfully presented an orchid plant her donor’s family, who traveled from Wisconsin to meet her. They cried and hugged, sharing a sense of loss, love and gratitude that transcends language.

Nurse-interpreter Patrycja Ulijaszyk, RN, stepped in, reporting that Mach awoke smiling after her kidney transplant and couldn’t stop beaming. The Polish- and English-speakers wiped their eyes.

“Mari was always smiling. Irena is always smiling, too,” said Marlene Malter, Mari Behnke’s mother.

“Irena is a little bit Norwegian now,” teased Dick Malter, Mari’s stepfather.

“Now we are a family,” said Mach, a retired seamstress who immigrated to Chicago with her family decades ago. Ulijaszyk’s translation from Polish to English brought smiles to the faces of Behnke’s parents and brother and sister-in-law, Mick and Julie Marks.

The tears and awkwardness faded. As Mach and Behnke’s family looked at photos, they agreed that Irena and Mari could pass as sisters. They also marveled at Irena and Mari’s shared love of animals, cooking and gardening.

Mari Behnke died of a heart attack on Sept. 26, 2017 at age 60. The vivacious horse show judge and riding instructor was survived by a husband, two stepchildren, and many relatives and friends. The ever-active Behnke – she dressed as the Energizer Bunny one Halloween – also left a legacy of life. She was a registered organ, bone and tissue donor.

As a donor, Behnke shared her legacy of life with 55 patients from California to South Dakota. Mach, who immigrated to Chicago decades ago and was facing renal failure, received Behnke’s right kidney at the PATC. The “center without walls” mobilizes to serve Chicago’s large Polish population.

patc team
Members of the Polish-American Transplant Center team

Led by surgeon Piotr Witkowski, MD, PhD, the PATC’s multi-lingual staff shepherds Polish immigrants and Polish-Americans through every step of the transplant process, from bloodwork to insurance to surgery to aftercare. Though Poles make up the city’s third-largest ethnic population, few world-class hospitals cater to Polish-speaking patients in need of transplants.

The PATC has emerged as a premiere medical resource for Portage Park, a Polish community on the Northwest Side, and the historic Trójkąt Polonijny (Polish Triangle), an old Polish neighborhood bound by Division Street and Ashland and Milwaukee avenues. The patients have reported that they feel more comfortable with a Polish-speaking staff who can guide them through the aftercare process.

“When a patient comes to us, we focus on providing personalized care by Polish-speaking personnel,” said Witkowski, who performed Mach’s transplant last fall.

Ulijaszyk “guides patients through the evaluation and surgery-prepping processes, I perform the surgery, and (nurses) Carolina Krakowiak and Agnieszka Stryjek provide care during the recovery period,” Witkowski said. Jozefa Sutor, RN, oversees outpatient care.

Andrzej Jakubowiak, MD, PhD, the Director of the Myeloma Program, is another is another core PATC member. The team collaborates with area Polish-speaking referring nephrologists including Anna Gopaniuk-Folga, MD, Teresa Majka-Kravets, MD, and Beata Kisiel, MD.

Mach asked Ulijaszyk her to write to her donor family to thank them for their generosity and to propose a meeting. The nurse, complying with privacy policies, waited about a year then sent the letter.

The Malters and Marks accepted the invitation, arriving with gifts and mementos of their beloved daughter and sister: a framed photo of a smiling Mari surrounded by flowers; a painting of a sunflower; and a news account of how Mari, at 29, was thrown from a horse, nearly trampled, and saved by her dog, who chased the horse away.

By the time sandwiches and pastries arrived from a Polish deli, conversations were so lively that Witkowski and other fellow PATC staffers had to pinch-hit as interpreters to keep up with the banter. “We all realize we’re family now,” said Mick Marks, reveling in the party atmosphere. “Once we get started, we don’t stop,” his mother joked.

Witkowski said he believes everything that happens has a purpose and called the reunion “very rewarding,” adding, “this is one in a million.”

Piotr Witkowski, MD, PhD

Piotr Witkowski, MD, PhD

Dr. Witkowski is a leading expert in islet transplantation. He was instrumental in developing an optimized islet isolation technique that greatly improved success in clinical transplants.

Learn more about Dr. Witkowski

Polish-American Transplant Center

The University of Chicago Medicine Polish-American Transplant Center serves Polish-speaking patients and their families who seek the highest quality transplant care. The center is run by a Polish-speaking team of experts who coordinate all aspects of care for patients before, during and after transplant.

Learn more about the Polish American Transplant Center