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Devils Lake family reflects on organ donation after tragic accident

"Donating is a big part of bringing closure and a small light of goodness in something that is always very tragic,” said Dr. Antranik Mangardich.

In the fall of 2021, Stacy and Leah Janzen (second and third from left) posed for a photo with sons are Josh (left) and Austin (right) with his wife Sarah.

GRAND FORKS – For Leah Janzen, the grief in the wake of her husband’s death was made somewhat more bearable with a decision to donate some of his organs to others in desperate need.

Stacy Janzen, 53, died in a farm accident near Devils Lake in May 2022. He left behind his wife, adult sons Josh and Austin,daughter-in-law Sarah and parents Allen and Mary Janzen, all of Devils Lake.

Leah remembers the details surrounding that time — the terrible accident and the surgery that followed.

“We had a discussion with the surgeon about his quality of life,” she said.

Austin’s wife, Sarah, said, “I guess they gave him a 50-50 chance of surviving this accident – but, if he did, the quality of life would not be much.”


The day after surgery, the family learned that Stacy had sustained brain damage. They were approached by LifeSource, an organ procurement organization, about the possibility of donation.

The decision to do so was not difficult, Leah said. “If we could find some good to come out of it, that’s what we wanted. Stacy was a very giving person. It made us, as a family, feel good we could find some good out of a tragedy – and to help others have a new chance at life.”

Leah and Stacy Janzen

Stacy donated two kidneys and a liver to people on an organ transplant registry.

For Sarah, the decision had professional, as well as personal, meaning. She has been working in the field of kidney dialysis for nearly four years at Altru in Devils Lake.

“I’ve gotten very close with some of my patients who are on the transplant list,” Sarah said, “and it kind of came full circle, seeing somebody benefit in what I hope my patients receive one day too. So, that was, I guess, healing to me.”

Stacy Janzen (center) is pictured with his sons Austin (left) and Josh after a successful fishing venture.

Organ donation uncommon

Organ donation at Altru Health System is not very common, said Dr. Antranik Mangardich, because “the specific way that people will have to pass away is actually not common.

“Only 1% of people who pass away meet the key requirements (to) be an eligible donor,” said Mangardich, who practices critical care medicine and pulmonology. “Three out of a thousand deaths actually are even meeting criteria for who would be a donor.”


Patients who are declared legally dead – either by heart or brain death – may be candidates for organ donation.

Most people think of death as occurring when the heart stops, Mangardich said. In cases of brain death, “there is traumatic brain injury to the point where there is no return of neurological function, but the heart continues to beat.”

Many tests are used to determine brain death; in those cases, more organs can be donated because the heart is still beating, keeping the organs viable. With cardiac death, there is less time to donate, he said.

Intensive care staff at Altru are “very well trained” to identify the triggers that call for consultation with LifeSource, Mangardich said.

“These are very traumatic times for families,” he said. “Once they’ve made that decision, a realization that this is an end-of-life or a non-survivable thing, sometimes the last thing they want to do is drag that time on, for the amount of time it takes” for the donation process.

At Altru, that time frame typically ranges from 48 to 72 hours, he said.

Studies show that public reaction to organ donation is favorable — about 95%, Mangardich said. Yet, only 53% of North Dakotans identify themselves as donors on their driver's license.

And the need is critical.


In the U.S., about 105,000 people are waiting for organs, he said. Every nine or 10 minutes, a new person is added to the transplant list; the most common need – in order of demand – is for kidneys, liver, heart and lung. Other needs include skin, eyes, soft tissue and bone.

Between 6,000 to 7,000 die each year waiting for an organ.

In 2022, about 25,000 kidneys, 9,500 livers and 2,600 lungs were transplanted, Mangardich said.

In North Dakota, the most common conditions that lead to the need for organ donation are diabetes, hypertension and alcohol use disorder, he said.

The cost of organ donation is not the responsibility of the donor’s family or estate, Mangardich said. “The financial burden of organ procurement is (assumed by) the recipient.”

He and others in the medical field hope to raise awareness that “donating is a big part of bringing closure and a small light of goodness in something that is always very tragic,” Mangardich said. “Even one person can save about eight lives through organ donation – and if you extend that to skin grafts, eyes and soft tissue, bones and reconstructive surgeries, that amplifies to 70 to 75 lives. It can have a very synergistic effect.

“Just one donor can change so many different lives,” he said.

Smooth process

Leah also had high praise for the LifeSource team that facilitated the organ donation process at Altru.


“They made everything go smoothly,” she said, “and made the family feel special. It was a very special process.”

The team arranged for a “walk of honor,” whereby Altru staff and others stood in reverence, lining the hospital corridor, as Stacy’s body was moved by gurney to the operating room for organ donation.

“They were very professional,” Leah said, “and made it manageable for the family.”

She feels the same way about the Altru staff, she said. “It was a great experience – for a tragedy.”

Stacy Janzen (left) with his parents Mary and Allen Janzen

Last summer, in the aftermath of the devastating event that took Stacy’s life, the Janzen family found some solace in the letters and pictures they received from the grateful organ recipients.

“Those letters were really touching, and I found some peace in that,” Sarah said. One especially moving correspondence came from a recipient who sent pictures of himself before and after the transplant.

“The difference in his appearance was spectacular. He looked so much more full of life,” Sarah said, “and that made me feel really good.”

For any family or person who’s facing a similar heart-wrenching situation, and is considering organ donation, Leah offered some advice.


“I’d say they have to think about what their loved one would want, and what’s best for that loved one,” she said, “and also knowing that you’re helping other people in that situation.”

Sarah said, “It was difficult because we were grieving the loss of Stacy in the moment, but it was an easy decision knowing what Stacy would want. The moment was hard because of losing him, but donating …”

“It didn’t even cross my mind not to,” Leah added. “It wasn’t a hard decision to make.”

Although Leah Janzen praised local LifeSource representatives, the company and others like it are not without issues. A report from the Rochester Post Bulletin — published Thursday evening on Forum Communications Co. websites — shows that LifeSource recently received a failing grade in a national assessment of procurement organizations.

The report also noted that "LifeSource is not alone." Twenty-four of the 56 organ procurement organizations, 42%, were ranked in Tier 3 on April 28, more than ever before, the Post Bulletin reported.

Susan Mau Larson, a LifeSource spokeswoman, told the Post Bulletin that covering such a large service area, coupled with issues that can arise with the region's weather, can impede operations. She also said LifeSource has made progress that will show in next year's report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was updated just before publication to note breaking news about LifeSource, a company that is prominently mentioned.

Leah Janzen, flanked by sons Josh (left) and Austin, observe the flag provided to the family by the LifeSource team at Altru to commemorate Stacy Janzen as an organ donor. The flag still flies at Stacy and Leah Janzen's home in Devils Lake, Sarah Janzen said. A flag-raising ceremony was also conducted at Altru Health System in Grand Forks shortly after Stacy Janzen died in May 2022.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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