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.
“He hears bullets and he runs into those situations,” said Robin Ihnfeldt, Jeff’s wife.
After more than a dozen family members and close friends got tested, but none were a match, both Robin and Jeff stepped up. Robin learned she couldn’t be a donor, but Jeff was a perfect match.
Fearless in battle and on film, Jeff had never spent a night in a hospital and wasn’t keen on needles and scalpels. Still, he didn’t flinch.
“Best odds I’ve been given on anything in a while,” Jeff told Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret, UCHealth’s Chief of Transplant Surgery. “Let’s do this.”
‘I have a little bit of Jeff’s liver and he’s living right through me’
So, in December of 2017, Jeff traveled from his home in San Diego to Colorado and joined a rare club of altruistic organ donors – people who volunteer to give up an organ for someone they don’t know. Jeff saved a life and for him, that’s business as usual.
The beneficiary of his sacrifice was a young mom from Centennial with severe liver disease. As Melinda Ray became sicker and sicker and feared she would die before receiving a transplant, she posted an emotional plea for help on Facebook. Jeff’s wife is friends with Melinda’s sister and saw the post. Jeff had never met Melinda before volunteering to save her life, but in typical Jeff fashion, he said “yes” immediately and sorted out the details later.
Now, nearly 18 months later, the two families are deeply intertwined. Jeff, now 48, seems to have twice the energy even though he has half his liver; actually, the liver regenerates, so he’s in good shape. Melinda, 36, figures she’s part Navy SEAL now. She has absorbed some of Jeff’s fearlessness and plans to use her new superpowers to become a nurse. Someday, she’d love to work in the transplant unit where kind nurses tended to her.
And both families continue to be heroes to children. Years ago, Melinda’s husband, James, had stepped up to adopt his former girlfriend’s son when she couldn’t care for him and his dad had disappeared. James was only 18. Melinda met James soon after and signed on to become a mom and a newlywed at the same time. The Rays’ son, Callum, is now 19 and graduated from high school this year. He hopes to follow Jeff and an uncle into a career of service. Melinda and her husband, James, also have a younger son and daughter.
“We’re all doing really well. Going through this as a family has made everyone so much stronger,” Melinda said. “I feel like I’m no-nonsense now. Before I was timid and nice and I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Now, I fight for myself. I started doing that with the liver. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t requested a referral to a liver specialist.”
Meanwhile, Jeff and Robin last year stepped up to become legal guardians for a 7-year-old boy. They’re in the process of adopting him and have four children now. Jeff continues to run his company, Skydive San Diego, while also heading Life of Valor, which encourages men to embrace their faith and become leaders in their families and their communities.
Jeff is part tough guy, part comedian, part drill sergeant and part teddy bear.
He now speaks regularly at events promoting organ donation, ribs his transplant surgeon as often as possible, continues to do stunt work, and jumps out of planes when he’s in the mood.
Jeff and Melinda have joked about doing a tandem parachute jump together. The old Melinda would have been too scared to try it. The new Melinda is 100% game.
“I would do it in a heartbeat. I would do it 10 times in a day if he’d let me,” she said. “I feel like I have more guts now. I’m not afraid of anything. I used to be afraid of needles and getting my blood drawn, but now I have a little bit of Jeff’s liver and he’s living right through me.”
Jeff, meanwhile, hasn’t lost any of his sense of humor since the surgery. During his recovery, he wasn’t supposed to lift more than 10 pounds or drink any alcohol. He hosted a party soon after returning home to San Diego and texted Pomfret with a photo showing a grocery cart full of big, heavy liquor bottles. (They weren’t for him, just for the guests. And, no he didn’t lug them himself.)
Asked at one event which movies he’d appeared in, Jeff responded with a grin and this gem: “The first one was Men of Honor,” he said. “Then there’s a few of the smaller, independent films like Transformers and Ironman…It’s a paycheck, man.”
A second chance at life
The two families see each other as often as they can. And Melinda relishes feeling well enough now to enjoy normal life. Prior to the transplant, her liver was swelling so much in her belly that she could barely eat and move around. She had little energy to spend time with the kids.
After the transplant, she coped with some bad side effects from anti-rejection drugs that were causing severe memory problems for several months. Now, she’s on new medications and the brain fog has lifted.
“I have a second chance at life. Instead of experiences, it’s just made me want to be a better person and more involved with my family and friends. I want to be there for them in their good times and hard times.”
In addition to caring for their children and taking nursing classes, Melinda loves to work out.
She lifts weights, does cardio and relishes time in the sauna after a great workout.
At home, she appreciates the simplest moments.
“Sometimes, it’s just walking in the room and the kids are cuddled up on the couch together. They don’t realize they’re hugging. It’s moments like that that make me feel so good. They’re happy, carefree little kids, not dealing with the loss of a parent.”
‘An easy decision: I’d want someone to do this for me’
The first time Jeff and Melinda met was during extensive screenings about a week before the Dec. 4 transplant at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
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, who lives in Centennial.
Jeff spotted James across the room and came up with a joke immediately.
“I’m kind of wearing your wife right now. Nice to meet you,” Jeff said.
He later recalled James tearing up too and knew immediately that he had made the right choice.
“I’m a man’s man,” he said. “I connect with them. My big thing in life is getting guys to be who they’re supposed to be for who they’re supposed to be it for. You need to be a miracle.
“This was an easy decision,” he said. “When I laid my eyes on James, I knew, ‘I’m doing it for that dude’ because I can’t imagine being told your wife has a limited time and there’s nothing you can do about it. Seeing James, I thought, ‘I’m doing this for you because I’d want someone to do this for me.’”
Plus, he scored a new little sister in the process.
“We literally share DNA at this point … and that’s pretty cool,” Jeff said.
Heroes to kids
If anyone deserved a good turn, it was James and Melinda. When James was just 18, his former girlfriend couldn’t care for her infant son and the boy’s biological father had disappeared. James instantly claimed Callum 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 and the couple adopted Callum.
“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.
Now, Jeff and Robin are adding an adopted son to their family.
The bonds between the two families kept growing from the moment they met to the recovery after surgery.
These days, they meet up whenever Jeff is in Denver for work. And the two have teamed up to give talks at events promoting transplants.
‘Desperately need a 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 Pomfret. She has performed more than 300 successful surgeries, leading the nation in surgeries for patients who need a live liver transplant.
Some risk, no hesitation
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.
Jeff didn’t hesitate.
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 on the Anschutz Medical Campus. “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.”
A great need for organ donors
The need for live liver donors is clear. Every year, there are about 14,000 people in the U.S. who need a liver. In 2018, doctors around the U.S., including Pomfret, performed 8250 liver transplants, 401 of which involved live liver donors. Nearly half of those on the transplant list did not receive livers.
“There’s always a greater need than the number of organs available,” Pomfret 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, 2017 – 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’
After the transplant, Jeff and Robin were thrilled to get home to his children, Micah, Sam and Annie, who are all teens. The newest addition to their family, Adrian, is now 8.
Among Jeff’s goals is encouraging more veterans to become organ donors. 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 can’t wait to become a caretaker instead of a patient.
And, every year on Dec. 4, she plans to celebrate her “liver-versary” and light a candle to celebrate Jeff’s selfless gift. She thanks Jeff all the time. And he always tells her, “Just stop saying thank you.”
But, she’s never going to stop.
“I’m going to honor this forever,” Melinda said.