The former Navy SEAL and Hollywood stuntman didn’t hesitate for a moment when he heard that a young mother he didn’t know needed a liver donation or she would die.
“I’d do it,” Jeff Bramstedt told his wife.
That’s the kind of guy he is.
After more than a dozen family members and close friends got tested, but were not able to donate parts of their livers, Bramstedt turned out to be a match. And earlier this month, the San Diego father of three gave Melinda Ray the greatest Christmas gift ever: life.
The first time the two met during an extensive screening at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital about a week before the transplant, Melinda jumped into the burly stranger’s arms as tears gushed from her eyes.
“I just couldn’t let him go. Just being able to feel this guy who would do this for me, I immediately loved this person. It’s like having a family member in a split second that you love completely,” said Melinda, 35, of Centennial.
The bond is just as powerful for Jeff, 47.
“I feel that I have a little sister now,” he told ABC. “We literally share DNA at this point and she has a major organ out of my body. I feel like I have a blood sister and that’s pretty cool.”
‘Your dad is my hero’
The families are now incredibly close too.
Melinda’s husband, James, has found that he and Jeff have a similar sense of humor and the men love ribbing each other.
There’s joy and laughter and overwhelming gratitude.
“He has given us the gift of life. He has saved my entire world,” James said.
Jeff is humble and self-effacing about donating his liver.
He did it because he didn’t want a young woman to die. End of story.
“It’s not OK for someone to die if you don’t step up. That was a no-brainer to me,” Jeff said. “There are very few things more noble that an average person can do to make a difference.”
It turns out that James also had made a life-changing difference for someone who needed his help. James takes little credit, but when he was just 18, his former girlfriend couldn’t care for her infant son and the boy’s biological father had disappeared. James instantly claimed the baby as his own. He met Melinda a short time later when both were 20. She bravely stepped into both a new relationship and motherhood all at once. The couple then fought for over 10 years to formally adopt their son Callum, now 17.
“You fight for each other and you never give up. That’s just the standard. It’s our code,” James said. “We wanted to ensure that he got what every child deserves: a loving, safe home.”
As the families got to know each other better, they were surprised to learn that along with a liver, they shared a bond over adoption. Jeff’s parents had adopted him when he was a baby. Among many other gifts, they gave him a love for swimming that later led to the SEALs and his Hollywood stunt gigs.
“My parents saved my life by adopting me. I wouldn’t have made it to 30 without them stepping up to the plate. When I learned that James and Melinda had adopted their oldest, it made me feel as though I was paying it forward. My parents mean the world to me. They made me who I am today,” Jeff said.
Since the 10-hour double surgeries at University of Colorado Hospital on Dec. 4, Jeff and Melinda recovered together on the transplant floor, then hung out later at the Rays’ home. Jeff and Robin were just cleared to go home to San Diego, where he owns Skydive San Diego and she runs an engineering lab.
The livers – Jeff’s current one and Melinda’s new one – will regenerate. Within three months, Jeff should be able to once again jump out of airplanes and do stunts on action movies like some of the favorites he’s appeared in: “Men of Honor,” “Transformers,” “Hancock,” “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon.” Melinda soon should be well enough to relish simple pleasures like walking her children to school.
The Rays’ three children spent much of 2017 worried about their mom who had once been very active and now was struggling with the symptoms of a rare, terminal illness. This month, the relief was palpable. To them, Jeff is their superhero.
Callum finally knew his mom was OK and could study for finals. The younger two made Christmas cards for Jeff and Robin’s three children.
Kieran, 7, drew a picture of an upside-down, bean-shaped liver with a smiley face inside of it and wrote, “Your dad is my hero.”
His 8-year-old sister wrote, “Your dad is the hero that will save my mom’s life. Merry Christmas from Mary. P.S. My mom is Melinda.”
‘Desperately need a live liver transplant’
The connection that led to the liver transplant was forged back in college at Colorado School of Mines. Jeff’s wife, Robin, had studied chemical engineering at Mines and has stayed close ever since with Melinda’s sister, Michelle Aikman. Robin had never met Melinda. But she and Michelle go on annual trips with women from college. In June, they were in Times Square when Michelle received a call from her sister.
The news was bad.
Melinda was getting worse fast. And none of the people who so far had offered to donate livers had qualified.
Melinda has known since she was about 20 that she had a disease called Polycystic Kidney Disease. But her doctors didn’t expect it to cause her any trouble for many decades.
In rare cases, the cysts grow and cause problems in other organs. Starting in January, cysts — including one as large as a grapefruit — started ballooning inside Melinda’s liver, essentially suffocating her from within.
“My lung has collapsed and both are slowly closing up. My heart is literally lying on my liver and being pushed up into my sternum,” she wrote in a public appeal for help earlier this year. “The worry is how long until they stop working? How long until things start shutting down?”
While Melinda’s illness was terminal, her liver technically was still functioning, so she couldn’t score high enough on the transplant list to get a liver from a deceased donor.
In order to survive, she would need a live liver transplant.
Hope and humanity
Robin came home from New York and told her husband about Melinda’s scary prognosis.
Instantly, Jeff offered to help.
Even though Robin is well acquainted with her husband’s courage, she was floored that he also seemed immune to fear. Drawing inspiration from him, she decided to get tested herself. Both she and Jeff had the right blood type to donate to Melinda, so Robin got tested first. She learned that her blood clots too fast, so she was out.
It was Jeff’s turn. He kept passing screening after screening and turned out to be a match. Robin worried about her husband, but learned to stop making decisions out of fear and has stood by his side throughout the process.
Finally, Jeff came to Colorado for two days of testing where he met with Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret, UCHealth’s Chief of Transplant Surgery. She has performed more than 300 successful surgeries, leading the nation in surgeries for patients who need a live liver transplant.
Pomfret and her team carefully review the risks with the donors. Removing about half of their liver is a major surgery and it’s agonizing to put donors under the knife when they are not sick. She asked Jeff several times if he was sure he wanted to proceed. She did her first live liver transplant in 1998 and thus has saved the lives of hundreds of recipients. But, she told Jeff that death was a possible risk.
He didn’t flinch.
“Best odds I’ve been given on anything in a while,” he told Pomfret as a big grin spread over his face. “Let’s do this.”
He’s used to putting his life in the hands of people he trusts. And he trusted her.
“She is a master at what she does. She’ll forever be part of my life.’’
Besides, he’s pretty comfortable doing things that other people find scary from skydiving to scuba diving to shooting weapons and serving overseas.
“I look at risk as normal,” he said.
Jeff and Pomfret have become friends since.
“I liked her as soon as she walked in the room. She knows her stuff and I like humor and she’s very funny.”
Pomfret said all organ donors are remarkable and that it’s a privilege to work in a field where she sees true human kindness every day. Altruistic donors, like Jeff, who step up even when they don’t know the recipient, are even more amazing.
“He is just a really extraordinary human being,” said Pomfret, who is also a professor of transplant surgery for the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “The guy had already done his part for society. He had served in the military around the world. He has his own young children and a wife. His decision speaks volumes to his character. These are really honest to God true heroes.”
The need for live liver donors is clear. Every year, there are about 14,000 people in the U.S. who need a liver. Last year, doctors around the U.S., including Pomfret, performed about 7,800 liver transplants. So, nearly half of those on the transplant list did not receive livers.
“There’s always a greater need than the number of organs available,” she said.
“Altruistic donation has been going on for years, but it’s not common in liver donation. That’s because the severity of the operation is more significant than for kidney donation, which is also significant,” she said. “With liver donation, we actually have to split the liver. It’s a substantial operation with substantial risks. It’s less common to see people do that for people they don’t know.”
Pomfret came to Colorado to head UCHealth’s transplant program from Massachusetts in 2016. She’s thrilled with her team here and has also found that more people in Colorado and the West are willing to donate organs for people they don’t know.
“There’s something about the people here,” she said. “It’s heartwarming, but also extraordinary to see this communal sense of wanting to make a difference and help people. Not that it doesn’t go on elsewhere, but I’ve been doing this a long time and more people here are willing.’’
Jeff’s decision made a world of difference to Melinda. When she heard that Jeff was a match and was willing to leave his home and business for weeks and undergo a tough surgery, she was stunned and overwhelmed.
“Here’s this guy that doesn’t know me and wants to do this thing for me,” Melinda said.
“It gave me great hope in humanity and also hope that I could be a mom and a wife. That was something that I wasn’t sure was going to happen throughout the year. The fact that someone would put their life on hold for me and stop their life to save mine, it meant everything to me. It was the greatest relief I’d ever felt,” she said.
‘The liver’s in’
On the morning of the surgery – December 4 – Jeff and Melinda’s families knew they faced a long day, but they gathered in the waiting room to wait for updates.
In one operating room, Pomfret would remove part of Jeff’s liver. He happened to have an unusually large, healthy liver, so she only needed to remove about 30 percent of it. Typically, a transplant requires about 60 percent of the donor’s liver. While Pomfret took less of Jeff’s liver, she had her work cut out for her cutting through the muscles in his abdomen to get to the liver.
In an adjacent operating room, someone close to Pomfret was waiting to help.
Back in high school, Pomfret had met a young man on the school bus. They stayed together through college and medical school and now Pomfret works every day with her husband, Dr. James Pomposelli, Surgical Director of Liver Transplantation at UCHealth.
Melinda was petrified as she waited to go under. But Pomposelli reassured her.
“I was very, very scared and very nervous,” Melinda said. “He held my hand like my dad would have done.
“He told me, ‘you’re going to wake up and you’re going to feel so much better.’”
Robin remembers the moment she heard the first bit of good news.
“It was 3:15 and we heard they had gotten his liver out. They got more than they needed and were stitching him up. Everything went well. “
The focus shifted to Melinda.
Robin expected to have to wait another three hours or so, but the news came sooner.
James got the call.
“The liver’s in. They’re closing the incision. Everything has gone great.”
Everyone hugged each other and James exhaled, physically releasing some of the strain from the past year.
“I felt something catch and break free,” he said.
‘The difference between life and death’
Today, both Jeff and Melinda are healing well. They’re in pain. Jeff says the hiccups feel like “a shot in the gut,” and Melinda needs to lay down frequently. They trade tips on how to sneeze and cough while pressing a pillow into their bellies to decrease the pain.
Jeff would like to get back to his physical activities, but Pomfret has given him a stern warning.
“No stunts,” she said.
Jeff and Robin were thrilled to get home to his children, Micah, 15, Sam, 13, and Annie, 12. Their mom cared for them during the time away. But it felt like a long time to be apart.
Jeff is now cooking up ideas to encourage veterans to donate organs. If more of them knew about the need for organ donation, he thinks many would step up.
“If there are veterans out there who are healthy, who are strong, who are athletes, who are young, you can make a big difference in someone’s life by just putting your name down and saying you’ll be a donor.
“Get out there and do it,” Jeff said. “It could mean the difference between life and death for somebody.’’
As for Melinda, she’s been studying nursing. Both she and James were overwhelmed by the kind nurses and other staff members they met during their transplant journey.
“They guided us through this difficult and trying journey with grace, compassion and expertise that always filled us with confidence and assurance,” James said.
Inspired by her caretakers, Melinda is eager to get back to her studies once she recovers. And someday, she’d like to work in the hospital’s transplant unit where she might help others who need a live liver transplant.
And every year on Dec. 4, she plans to celebrate her “liver-versary” and light a candle to celebrate Jeff’s selfless gift.
Said Melinda, “I’m going to honor this forever.”