JACKSON, WY – Two years ago, David Landes and Mark Henderson were strangers despite having a lot in common.
Both men are long-term residents of the tight-knit Jackson community that lies beneath the magnificent Grand Tetons. They’re avid skiers, climbers, hikers and lovers of all things outdoors. They even share mutual friends.
But it took David knocking on death’s door for the two to finally meet.
Nearly 20 years ago, David was diagnosed with a liver disease. Doctors told him nothing, besides bad luck, caused the diagnosis. With a yearly checkup, medication and the absence of alcohol David continued to live a normal and healthy life.
That is, until March of 2015.
David’s wife, Karen, was competing in an annual ski race when she died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. In the midst of the tragedy, David had to make the difficult and quick decision to donate all her organs.
The stress of losing the woman he shared a life with was devastating. For the first time, his liver began to fail. David became a shadow of his former self. The man who spent his days hiking and skiing across Wyoming’s wilderness could barely walk.
David’s condition quickly degraded, and he wasn’t going to survive long enough on the organ donor list. He had to find a living donor – someone willing to undergo surgery to give him part of their liver.
The community of Jackson rallied around David by sharing his story. As his story circulated, Mark was studying the liver as a nursing student.
“To have something within us, internally, that can regenerate and save somebody else’s life... it’s just a miracle. It gives me chills talking about it,” said Mark.
After class, Mark was discussing his amazement of the liver with a friend. That’s when fate stepped in. The friend had heard of David’s story and shared it with Mark.
David and Mark met over dinner in what they jokingly refer to as a “blind date.” After the meeting and testing by the Cleveland Clinic, Mark was coined a match. He decided he wanted to save David’s life.
“Why the heck not? You only have one life to live, you might as well help someone else’s life and then continue your beautiful life as well,” said Mark.
In the days leading up to the surgery, Mark requested only one thing of David.
“He said to me, ‘Let’s climb the Grand after you’re done,’” recalled David. “Just without really thinking about the details, I said, ‘Sure! Let’s do that.’”
The two underwent surgery on October 24, 2016 at the Cleveland Clinic.
The change in David was miraculous.
“He was alive right in front of my eyes,” said Mark.
Mark donated one third of his liver to David. Within two months, both Mark and David’s livers had re-grown to full-size.
After recovery, David and Mark decided to follow through on their promise. On August 27, 2018, David and Mark began their trek of the Grand Tetons. It would be the most time the two had spent together.
Watching David climb moved Mark. Seeing him transform from his weakest to his climbing partner made it all the more special.
Yet as they climbed, the debris from a snow storm the night before made their ascent challenging. For safety, they decided to stop at a sub-peak. To them, they had already overcome the mountain of an organ transplant. Being able to climb together was just the cherry on top.
“There were definitely a few tears dropped. That was incredible. We were both very emotional about something we had been striving for the past couple of years to get on top of,” said Mark.