Knowing how passionate he felt about organ donation, his devastated mother, Karen Behl, and stepfather, Kevin, made sure his wishes were carried out.
According to Karen, Mikey donated his heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, and kidneys – giving five people a new chance at life.
“We heard from three of the people who received his organs and it helps so much to know that he is living on in others,” she said. “Hearing their stories helped me to feel more peaceful about having to go through the agonizing pain of losing him.”
Since he was young, the family knew that Michael was wired differently than other boys. Extraordinarily social, he could relate to any person of any age, race or religion.
“He was very high spirited and loved people,” said Karen. “He didn’t care if the person was a toddler or elderly, he would want to sit and connect and get to know the person and talk to them. He loved all people, no matter what color or financial background, and probably his greatest asset was that he didn’t even think of diversity. He just thought of people as people.”
Many affectionately called Mikey “the mayor” because he enjoyed shaking hands with everyone, said his mother.
“He just knew almost everyone and genuinely enjoyed shaking their hands and getting to meet them,” said Karen. “He also enjoyed fishing, boating, golfing, playing basketball and spending time with friends and family.”
Mikey, who has three brothers, Nicholas and Joel Janasik and Robert Behl, 11, attended St. Robert Elementary School in Shorewood and later, Bayside Middle School and Nicolet High School. He had planned to attend Fox Valley Technical School.
“Mikey wanted to do something in manufacturing,” said Karen. “He didn’t care all that much for academics, but liked the idea of working with his hands. He also thought about eventually becoming a police officer.”
To deal with their overwhelming grief, Karen and Kevin honored Mikey’s memory with a walk-a-thon July 16, 2011 to raise funds for the Blood Center of Wisconsin/Organ donation. Karen is a registered nurse educator and trains new nurses at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital, and Kevin is an administrator for MadisonMedical Affiliates and various programs at Columbia St. Mary’s. Because of their medical backgrounds, they value the importance of blood, organ and tissue donations.
“We just wanted to celebrate his life and have others energized to be able to share their memories with us, while doing something to help others,” said Karen. “I loved that his friends are connected by looking at his pictures and telling stories about him. We laugh and carry on his memory that way. Our first walk, we had 170 participants and raised about $7,000 for the Blood Center.”
Anne Taylor, development associate for the Blood Center of Wisconsin, said funds from the walk-a-thon supported education and communication about the need for organ donors.
“There are many people on the waiting lists for organ donations and there is a lot of misinformation among the general public about donations,” she explained. “Because Karen is an educator herself, her goal was in getting people to understand how important it is to sign up for the registries, and any funding we can get that will help us spread the word is so very important.”
As it was in Mikey’s case, one donor can help save or restore a number of people’s lives. The need is especially great for minorities such as African Americans who often are on long waiting lists for kidney transplants. There are currently more than 110,000 people on transplant lists; and many will die while waiting.
“Many African Americans have diseases that cause kidney failures, and high blood pressure and diabetes are among them,” said Taylor. “Some can wait years for a donation. Being an organ or tissue donor is a wonderful way to honor the person you have lost while doing something good for other people. It makes everyone feel good when you are a part of something like that. Karen is a really wonderful person; she is very strong and didn’t want her son’s organs to be wasted.”
The family, members of St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point, has turned to their Catholic faith to navigate the pain and unanswered questions that accompany the loss of a child. When they endured the difficult court trial that resulted in a 25-year sentence for the drunk driver who killed their son, they were at peace knowing others are protected from the behavior of this individual.
“Once the trial was over, we just all felt more peaceful,” said Karen. “I believe that my faith got me by and I often wonder how anyone could get through a tragedy like this without faith. I had to know that Michael was safe and in the arms of Jesus and with God. I really do feel he is there and at peace, too.”
In continuing to honor his memory, the family recently held their second walk-at-thon, benefitting Bayside Middle School where Mikey had many positive experiences.
“He really connected with the teachers there and enjoyed those years at Bayside,” said Karen. “We had about 270 walkers and raised approximately the same amount of money as we did in the first walk-a-thon.”
While the fundraisers are time consuming and require much planning, the Behls hope to host another one next year.
“I hope we can do this, but we aren’t sure what next year will bring, or who we plan to raise the funds for,” said Karen. “But I do really feel that friends and family and friends of family really enjoy getting together to do this for others.”
As a nurse, Karen witnesses tragedy nearly every day. Her experience in losing her son gives her empathy and compassion that most are unable to comprehend. This combination of faith, compassion and understanding helps her to motivate others to dig deep into their own roots of faith.
“The only thing that has really gotten me through this has been my faith,” she said. “I just don’t know how anyone could get through something like this without it. I know that as a health care provider I would have lifelong issues with bitterness and anger, but I choose to live in a peaceful way.”