It was 10 years ago this month when Bill Widen received a new lung — and a new life.
On April 5, Widen returned to Keck Hospital of USC to commemorate the anniversary with some of the people who helped make it happen. April is National Donate Life Month.
Bubbling with the energy of a man half his 60 years, racecar driver Widen greeted hospital workers and other transplant recipients. He also got supporters and curious onlookers to sign the hood of his Donate Life Chevy Nova, which he drives to events around the country to encourage people to become organ and tissue donors.
“We owe so much to the doctors and staff of USC for getting us through all these years,” he said. “They have become a second family.”
Several members of his original team from the hospital — then called USC University Hospital — came outside to chat with Widen and to congratulate him on his continued good health.
“He’s done great,” said lead transplant coordinator Felicia Schenkel. “He’s the biggest advertisement for transplant that we have.”
Transplant scheduler Patricia Pulido has known Widen since his surgery.
“I’m glad he’s doing great and glad we can give patients a second chance,” she said.
Widen, an Ontario resident, was suffering from emphysema and could barely walk a few feet when he received his new lung. He doesn’t know the 18-year-old man who donated it, but it was an act of generosity that has inspired Widen ever since.
He and his daughter, Andrea Smith, drive the Donate Life car to drag races and to raise awareness for the importance of donating organs.
“People are afraid to put the dot on their license,” said Widen, who runs Donate Life/Signatures Across America. “We talk to them about that.”
Widen’s appearance also inspired the family of a man who received a heart transplant at the hospital in March. Still recovering from his operation, 22-year-old Joe Alerta was escorted outside in a wheelchair to meet a man who was in a very similar situation a decade ago.
“It’s awesome,” said Joe’s mother, Mel Alerta. “It gives me goose bumps. I’m overwhelmed.”
Also on hand was Mike Catterall, who received a double lung transplant nine years ago. He said Widen’s enthusiasm and energy demonstrate that people can lead active lives after a transplant.
“He’s helped save a lot of lives,” Catterall said. “This brings out the awareness. You can save someone’s life and be a hero. Who doesn’t want to be a hero?”
For Widen, every day of the past 10 years has been a gift.
“It gave me a different outlook on life,” he said. “It definitely changed the entire way I look at life.”
For more information about Widen’s project, donorracing.com