Longmont Bartender Donates His Liver to Save a Unknown Child’s Life
In August 2017, Aaron Whalen, a 33-year-old bartender in Longmont, called UCHealth’s Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora and asked the receptionist what he had to do to donate part of his liver.
He didn’t know anyone in need or seek any financial gain. He just wanted to help.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “My mom donated her kidney a few years back and I saw the reaction of the family, so I know what it’s like to wait for something like that. ... It turned out my blood type was O positive, which means I could donate to anybody, so at that point I was just like let’s find somebody who’s ready for one right now. My only prerequisite was that it went to a kid.”
That lucky kid is Manny Estrada. In 2010, Manny was only 2 ½ months old when he was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a rare disease of the liver that causes bile to remain in the organ, where it starts to rapidly destroy liver cells and cause cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver.
After having immediate surgery to try and cure him, pediatricians told his parents, Karina and Miguel Estrada, to just wait it out. But his condition never got better. In fact, it got worse.
“His first years of life he kept getting different infections one after another, year after year,” Karina said. “In 2017 he started to get really sick and in December we were informed he would need a new liver.”
Even though Manny was the 20th name on the donor list, Whalen’s donation enabled him to undergo transplant surgery just two weeks later.
“When I found out we had a donor, I’ve never been so speechless in my life,” Karina Estrada said. “It was very emotional.”
The night before his surgery, she put Manny in a bubble bath and tried to answer all of his questions.
“He wouldn’t talk much about it until the night before his transplant,” Karina Estrada said. “I got him into a bubble bath and that’s when he started to open up. He asked if they were going to take his brain out. I told him no and he asking more questions but in the end, he finally said they’re going to take him out of his misery.”
The next day the Estrada family got to the hospital at 9 a.m., but due to complications during the surgery doctors had to open him up three times, finally finishing the procedure at 3 a.m. the next day.
“I felt relieved that it was over, but because there were so many complications, we feared it wouldn’t work out,” Karina Estrada said. “It was the hardest thing in the world seeing him in the hospital bed with all of these tubes coming out of him and marks from the incisions.”
Ultimately Manny spent three weeks in the hospital and another month in the Ronald McDonald House so doctors could keep a close eye on his recovery. Near the end of his stay there, Manny and his family finally got to meet Whalen for the first time as health-care privacy laws prohibited any previous contact.
“Right off the bat I knew it was going to be someone with a big heart, big enough to put themselves through that,” Karina Estrada said. “Usually you’d do it for your mom or your sibling, but doing it for a complete stranger is crazy to think about.”
For Whalen, the decision to donate was relatively easy, especially because he was informed his liver would fully grow back within a year’s time. After meeting Manny that decision was confirmed 100 times over.
“When I met him he was just running around like a little kid, tons of energy, and his mom and dad said they’d never seen him that happy before,” Whalen said. “It felt amazing and was extraordinarily emotional to know that what I did helped him just be a normal kid and have the opportunity to go live his life.”
Ultimately, Whalen’s recovery took six weeks, during which time he said he watched a lot of Netflix and played a lot of video games. But, 34 days after the surgery, Whalen was able to go on a 20-mile bike ride and by week seven he was back at work bartending at The Dickens Tavern and 3′s Bar. The American Living Organ Donor Fund even covered all of his lost wages.
“It was so easy for me, I was like ‘more people need to do this,’” he said. “There are kids waiting right now who could use a liver who don’t deserve to be waiting, let alone their families who don’t know if their kid is going to live or die.”
During his recovery period, Whalen also said he and his then-girlfriend Kara grew much closer, ultimately leading to their marriage on May 15, just a couple months after his transplant surgery.
“I now understand what my mom was talking about when she decided to donate her kidney,” Whalen said. “Yes I helped save Manny’s life, but it also immensely changed my life for the better.”
Throughout the process, he said he got to meet a number of amazing doctors and organ donor advocates, including Olympic bronze medal-winning snowboarder Chris Klug who won the bronze after his own liver transplant. The American Liver Foundation even recognized him as the National Champion and Liver Hero of 2019, as only the second organ donor in Colorado history to make an “altruistic donation” without knowing the recipient.
Now a little more than a year after the surgery, a benchmark in transplant procedures that signifies long-term success, the Estrada family’s lives have beentransformed.
Prior to the transplant Manny said he didn’t have a lot of energy and always had a stomachache, which kept him from playing with his friends or picking up sports.
Today, his parents say Manny is just like any other kid, eliminating the constant worry from their lives, and they plan to sign him up for soccer this year.
“It’s my second chance at life,” Manny said. “I don’t worry anymore.”
John Spina: 303-473-1389, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jsspina24