Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Dan Knippel, one of the first successful kidney donors in Wisconsin
WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- Dan Knippel and his brother, Fred Knippel, both helped pioneer kidney donation in Wisconsin.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of a major milestone in the Knippel family. Dan donated a kidney to his brother on July 21, 1972. At the time, it was a risky surgery with no guarantees, but that brave decision impacted the whole family.
"Here we go, gang," Dan Knippel said, raising a glass of champagne.
The family has a lot to celebrate right now. It's Dan and his wife Joyce's 69th wedding anniversary.
"Thanks for hanging in there, kid," Dan said to Joyce with a laugh.
But this month also marks another major milestone.
"To faith and courage and love," Dan said.
The family is calling this celebration a "kidney-versary."
"Life is really something else. Every day is an adventure, I think," Dan said.
Fortunately, Dan does have an adventurous spirit. It's what helped him make the decision to donate a kidney to his brother, Fred, who he called Fritz.
"I came home and Joyce said 'what are you doing' and I said 'I'm going to give Fritz a kidney.' So, needless to say, it didn't go over too well with her," he said with a small laugh.
"It was very, very scary for our family," she said. "I just thought he was out of his mind at the time."
That’s because at the time, in 1972, a kidney donation was still a ground-breaking surgery.
"Imagine being the one to do something that no one else has done before, and you could die," Fred's daughter, Stephanie Knippel, said.
"They only had that in weird movies like Frankenstein, okay," Dan added.
But Dan and Fred trusted in the new science.
"I said, if that's what it takes, I've got two of them and I think you tell me I can spare one. Which, I believe you. I don't know why I did, but I believed him. But needless to say, it worked out. and here I am, after 50 years," he said.
This wasn't the family's first transplant. Fred had gotten a kidney from his sister, Pat, in 1968.
"I always remember this part about my dad saying on his 37th birthday he was publicly thanking God," said Fred's daughter, Karen Lepak.
But that kidney wasn't a perfect match and eventually failed. So Fred had to turn to a brand-new technology.
"He went on dialysis, my mother said, when they were unpacking the machines at the hospital," Lepak said.
But it turned out Dan's kidney was a perfect match. Lepak and Stephanie Knippel were young at the time, but they remember their dad's illness and surgery.
"From the time we were very small, he was sick," Stephanie said.
"After he got Uncle Dan's kidney, his second transplant, he had life restored to him," Karen said. "He felt good. He did things. They bought a house."
Fred got the chance to walk his daughter down the aisle and to meet his granddaughter.
"It really is a story of courage and hope and faith and fortitude," Lepak said.
In some ways, the transplant impacted the whole family.
"What they did helps other people, and it helped other people, and it's still helping other people, and that's a magical thing to be able to help people," Stephanie said.
Fred Knippel died from a stroke in 1985, but Dan's kidney was still going strong and that's how his daughters remember him.
"He was tough as nails, he didn't take any guff from anybody. You either loved him or you didn't," Lepak said with a smile.
Fred Knippel also helped found the Wisconsin Chapter of the Kidney Foundation.
"Fritz was a pioneer in getting people to volunteer to be donors," Dan said.
The whole family is now encouraging others to think about being organ donors. And while it was a scary choice to make at the time, Dan said it was always the right one.
"You're probably going to ask me, would I do it again? I said, without a doubt. But then I would have told my wife a little bit ahead of time what I'm going to do," he said with a laugh.
For more information on the Kidney Foundation, click here.
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