The story of a young man gone too soon and a grateful recipient’s football dreams
Michael Collins’ life was tragically cut short, but he continues to make a difference in the lives of others after donating his organs. His mother, Kelly Collins, still remembers the day Michael announced he had signed up as a donor. “A letter arrived from the secretary of state,” she says. “That day Michael was breezing in and out of the house doing something and I said, ‘Hey, you signed up to become a donor?’ And he yelled back, ‘Yep!’ I said, ‘Do you know what that means?’ ‘Yep!’ And out the door he went. He didn’t ask permission or our opinion. Signing up was the right thing to do, so he did it. That was Michael.”
On March 29, the car carrying Michael and two classmates was struck at an intersection by a drunken driver who had run a red light traveling more than 100 mph. After four days in the ICU and two brain surgeries, when Michael’s fate had become imminent, his family agreed to honor the pledge he made on his 18th birthday to become an organ and tissue donor-allowing surgeons time to recover enough of his organs and tissue to save or improve the lives of as many as 200 recipients.
“Michael was the ultimate athlete from the time he was born,” Kelly continues. “To think that it has now come full circle, that his cartilage and bone and tissue could live on and benefit other athletes in this higher way, well, I looked down at the list of possible donations they gave me and just kept saying ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes.’”
TRAVIS SCHERTZ’S LASTING CONNECTION: Travis didn’t even make it out of the parking lot before his mangled right knee began to throb, again. By June 2013, Schertz, a speedy 6-foot-2, 205-pound sophomore wide-out at Minnesota State, had endured seven tedious, tortuous months of rehab following his fourth — and, he was assured, final — knee surgery. When he first arrived on campus, Schertz had dreams of fine tuning his power-forward explosiveness and following former Minnesota State receiver Adam Thielen to the NFL. Chronic cartilage problems, however, had left bone grinding against bone in his knee. Every time he used his leg, it shot white-hot, throbbing jolts of pain through his body, as if he had bitten his tongue.
Travis spent the next month researching alternative, advanced and cutting-edge orthopedic solutions. A pattern emerged. Every hit seemed to include the name of the same doctor: Chicago’s Brian Cole, the team physician for the Bulls and the White Sox and a pioneer in meniscal and cartilage transplants. Twenty years ago, doctors would have cleaned out Schertz’s knee, helped him manage his pain and sentenced him to a life on the La-Z-Boy.
Now, using tissue from donors like Michael Collins, Dr. Cole performs 50 meniscal transplants a year and has helped more than 50 elite pro and college athletes return to the field. “In many cases, this tissue is every bit as life-saving as an organ,” Cole says. “I have patients call, crying, in pain, angry, depressed, immobile, and in a hurry for surgery. But I have to remind them to keep perspective: Someone has to die before you can get your new knee.”
Schertz waited five months for a young donor with the same weight and bone measurements. On Nov. 20, 2013, he was on Cole’s operating table at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago for the five-hour surgery to realign his tibia and replace his meniscus and cartilage.
By June, Schertz was running on an anti-gravity treadmill at 80 percent of his weight. He returned to campus in the fall and hopes to rejoin the Division II No. 1-ranked Minnesota State team next year. A registered donor himself, Schertz wants the family of Michael Collins and his own set of donors to know that the end of his chronic suffering and the continuation of his football dreams have been nothing short of life-saving.
“Not a day or a moment goes by that I don’t stop in my tracks and think about the sacrifices and losses someone else had to go through so that I could fix my knee,” says Schertz, who wept at his keyboard while composing thank-you letters to his own donors’ families. “What can I do or say to that family to justify the fact that I still get to run and play and be healthy and active and pursue my football dreams at the expense of their son?”