Man Raising Awareness for Organ Donation Stumbles Upon UNMC

Don Erickson was walking down Leavenworth Street on Thursday morning when he looked up and saw three words that made him stop. Lied Transplant Center. You see, Erickson wasn’t just out for a stroll in Omaha. The 55-year-old is on a trek across the country. By foot. He’s walking the approximately 3,300 miles to raise awareness for organ donation.

donedit A good friend’s brother died after complications from a grand mal seizure. Because of the Y on the man’s driver’s license and his family’s verbal yes, Joe Rethmeier saved five lives with his organs. He improved more than 50 with his tissues and skin.

One of those lives was that of an elderly woman who needed new corneas. The woman’s husband had Alzheimer’s disease. Upon receiving the gift of sight, she was able to renew her driver’s license and remain the primary caretaker of her husband.  And he was able to remain home with her.

Stories like this are what sparked Organ Donation Awareness: One Mile at a Time.

Along the way, Erickson encountered a bear in New Jersey. (Get big and roar. Erickson said that made the bear scamper back into the woods.) He’s also thrown out the first pitch at a Minnesota Twins game. (He still gets goose bumps when he talks about it.) He gets by on beef jerky, almonds, peanut butter and a whole lotta pop tarts.

Erickson started in New York in June and will be halfway home when he reaches Kansas. The goal is to make it to Arizona by Christmas to spend the holidays with his youngest son, and California by the end of January. Prior to the start, a friend bet him that Erickson would want to quit at least 100 times by the time it was over. Erickson says he wanted to quit 100 times before he reached Iowa.

But he didn’t. And he won’t, because of people like Dillon in Ohio. And Alan in Indiana. And Charley in Iowa, whom he met last week outside of Avoca. Charley is a young heart transplant recipient, who read about a guy trekking across the country to support organ donation in her transplant newsletter a couple weeks ago. Imagine her mother’s surprise when she happened upon Erickson while driving around Avoca.

“All three of us are in shock that nothing but fate has brought us to this meeting,” Robin Butler recalled on her Facebook page. “We will never forget the man walking for such an amazing cause.”

“Just seeing Charley smile and to see how happy her mom was…. it made it all worth it,” Erickson said, adding that he misses his family dearly, especially girlfriend Val.

An electrician by trade who flips homes on the side, Erickson said he’s learned two main lessons on his journey.

Number one: expect the unexpected. Erickson’s had his phone stolen, his wallet taken, met a man who believed he was Moses and twice abandoned his belongings to jump in the ditch and avoid cars.

“Texting and driving,” Erickson lamented. “My next walk might be on that.”

Lesson No. 2. People are kind. Total strangers hand him $10 and $20 bills. Churches and fire departments open their doors for a place to stay, though he camps most nights.

At UNMC, we treated him to a hot lunch of chicken and dumplings in the Nebraska Café. Lisa Spellman in Public Relations arranged for him to meet liver transplant recipient and UNMC employee Dave Eggers. Debb Anderson heard what was happening and went straight to the top. Mere hours after arriving at the med center, none other than the chief of transplant surgery himself, Alan Langnas, D.O., gave Erickson a tour of the Lied.


Pictured are transplant surgeons Dr. Rubin Quiros (left) and Dr. Alan Langnas with Don Erickson.

The weary traveler was so impressed he booked an open hotel room for the night. He said he won’t soon forget his experience at the med center. It was everything he hoped for when he stopped his cart earlier that morning and looked up.


Don Erickson by the numbers

6 – the number of months of research Don did prior to his departure

3 or 4 – the number of pairs of boots he expects to go through by the time he’s done

1,000+ – number of business cards he’s handed out

2 – the number of miles per hour he walks

3,500 – the number of dollars he’s spent on hotels, food, supplies, etc. thus far

17-18 – the number of miles he averages per day

600 – the number of gloves he’s spotted on the side of the road. He started posting pictures of them on his Facebook page. Joe Rethmeier’s mother has a theory: they’re high fives from heaven, sent by her son.

515-745-0409 – Don Erickson’s cell phone number, where an inspirational text to “keep on keepin’ on” is always welcome.

Power Wheels to Makeshift Power Wheelchairs

The idea of modifying cars is not a new one. Just look at reality shows like “Trick My Truck.”  But the concept of adapting toy cars for children with disabilities?

Now, that’s novel.

That’s exactly what happened at the Center for Healthy Living last month. Fifty area physical therapists broke out the power tools and listened to national early mobility expert Cole Galloway, Ph.D., from the University of Delaware show them how to turn “Power Wheels” into early versions of power wheelchairs.

First, the groups ripped off the steering wheels of six toy trucks and attached big red buttons in their place. Then, they added kill switches by drilling holes into the plastic near the license plates. Next, they added padded PVC pipe frames and finally, seatbelts. Last but not least, decal stickers made the Larry the Cable Guy character car come to life.

Paula Wachholtz, a physical therapist for Papillion La-Vista School District, came away impressed. “I want to go to Toys R Us on the way home,” she said.

Paula Wachholtz, a physical therapist for Papillion La-Vista School District, came away impressed. “I want to go to Toys R Us on the way home,” she said.

The cost: $89 for each car, plus supplies. The cost for a power wheelchair: somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000-$20,000.

“Most adaptive equipment is considered medical equipment, therefore they don’t sell very many and it drives up the cost,” said Reggie Harbourne, Ph.D., associate professor of physical therapy at UNMC’s Munroe-Meyer Institute and organizer of the workshop. “This is so easy, what do we have to lose?”

Physical therapists spent about an hour transforming the toy cars. Finally, the big moment: putting kids behind the wheel for a test drive.


First up was 3-year-old Tyler Lundy, who has cerebral palsy. He was apprehensive at first. Much like a 16-year-old trying to drive a stick shift, his driving was herky-jerky at best. After a few tries, he put the red button to the floor and cruised off into the sunset (OK, it was more like the free throw line of the gym at three miles per hour, but very cute, nonetheless). Just when his parents saw their son growing up before their eyes, the car abruptly stopped. Tyler was crying. He couldn’t see his mom anymore.

“They do tend to cry the first couple times,” Dr. Harbourne said. “It’s a lot of new information. The noise, the speed, and for some it may be the first time they’ve ever caused something to go.”

But pretty soon, Tyler was back at it, showing off by using his chin to make the car go. He grinned like he was in a parade and even threw out some waves to the crowd of therapists.

Next up was Brandon. At just 11 months, he was the smallest of the children to try out the truck. Born prematurely, he is still learning to roll over. While an initial smile crossed his lips when he hit the gas, it wasn’t long before he, too, was in tears.

His face said it all: “Where’s my mom?”


The access to mobility for children who can’t move on their own is beneficial in two ways, Dr. Harbourne said. It allows them to control their environment and, simply, to socialize. Just like adults who get something new and want to show it off to their friends, kids clamor to get close to TowMater or Mater, as he’s known in the movie.

“Other kids Tyler’s age normally don’t want his toy; nobody wants a stroller. But with this, they’ll come talk to him, and he can work on his social and language skills, too,” Dr. Harbourne said.

Without mobility, kids with disabilities don’t have much of a chance to create cause and effect, which helps them understand concepts like over, under, around and through.

“If children don’t have the motor capacity to do things they cause the effect of, it can lead to delays in others area, like cognition or language. They don’t learn by watching others do things,” Dr. Harbourne said.


Parents can think of it this way. When kids knock their sippy cups off their highchairs, it’s not because they’re trying to annoy you (well, maybe a little), but rather because it helps them understand concepts like object permanence (Even if I drop this, it still comes back, again and again).

Tyler got the “cause and effect” message loud and clear. His parents were excited for him to take the car home.

“This is a great way for him to keep up with his peers,” said his mom, Jennifer. “Just like any typical boy…he loves to go fast.”tysmilesm

Observations in the DOC


A few Fridays ago, I headed up the hill for lunch with plans of assembling a healthy salad just a few hours prior to my glucose test for gestational diabetes and routine doctor’s appointment. That was before I found out it was “create your own mac and cheese” day. Salad, schmalad. I got in line for the M&C.

macaroniAs I shoved my face full of macaroni until I could see only Styrofoam, it never occurred to me that this might have an effect on my glucose test. You see, I’ve since learned that macaroni = carbs and carbs breaking down = sugar, specifically glucose. And this is why I didn’t go to medical school. Science is not my friend.

As I chugged my orange glucose drink for the camera (you might see me in a future segment of Ask UNMC) I had no idea I was giving myself a sugar high.

SONY DSCAn hour later, I stopped by the diagnostic center for a quick blood draw and headed up to my appointment at the Olson Center for Women’s Health. Upon entering the exam room, my doctor kindly informed me I was a failure. At least when it came to glucose tests.

We quickly deduced that the macaroni may have played a part, but I argued that it was worth it. That was before she told me I would  have to do the 3-hour glucose test, which consists of drinking the entire bottle of glorified Hi-C and four needle pricks.

I showed up to the diagnostic center on Monday with my Kindle in hand, prepared to pass the time reading. But in between blood draws, I decided to mosey down to the Durham Outpatient Center.

As a sat there contemplating whether the macaroni bar really was worth the next three hours of my life, I noticed the elevators. Up and down they went. They’d start at the bottom empty, collect people along the way up and then deposit them on their floor of choice. The folks who got on and off  might have been here for a check-up, a consult, a cold, or cancer treatment. Whether they were off to hear good news or bad news was unknown.

I glanced at the people around me. What were they doing here? I wondered. The woman catching zzz’s on the couch…was she awaiting word on the birth of a baby? The man typing away on his tablet…was he passing time during a loved one’s surgery?

The couple that walked by with their canes in sync. The fast walkers. The slow ones. Those that rolled by in wheelchairs. Those that were led by their oxygen tanks on wheels. What brought them here today?

It made me realize I work at a place where some of the sickest people come to get better. Whether it’s a doctor working with a patient on a speedy recovery, or a researcher behind closed doors investigating a vaccine to prevent people from getting sick in the first place, there is always something monumental happening on this campus that we might not notice. We here in PR refer to UNMC as the place that “hums” and now I know it’s because of all the people buzzing about, doing their best to make people better.

One of my favorite quotes is, “A person who has health has a thousand wishes; the person who doesn’t, has but one.” How cool is it that it might be a physician, a researcher or a current student/future doctor right here at UNMC who grants that one wish?

So to answer the question I’m sure you’re all wondering: Yes. The macaroni bar was well worth it, but for reasons I couldn’t have fathomed beforehand.

P.S.: I believe it’s “create your own mac and cheese” day at the Nebraska Cafe today if you’re interested…;)