Through a family’s tragedy comes grace—providing a new future for another

Transplant recipient Karl Smith considers himself the caretaker of Bret Vogt’s donated pancreas and kidney. 

“This relationship is a symbiotic one; we keep each other alive. Together we exist in a new normal… still living on.”

Karl lived with type 1 diabetes for almost 40 years when his pancreas stopped functioning. The stress of managing his health and often not feeling well overshadowed Karl’s daily life. The chronic illness damaged his kidneys so much that he needed a double-organ transplant to continue living and then to end further organ damage from diabetes. He waited on the transplant list for seven years. He gained more reason to live after he married and had a son. On the day Bret became a donor, Karl’s life was saved.

Bret’s death at the age of 21 was unexpected, but authorizing organ and tissue donation was a logical choice for Bret’s family. Bret had always been a giver and protected those close to him, especially his younger sister Kelsey. He was an engineering student at the University of Illinois, executive member of his fraternity and president of the U of I Bass Fishing Club. Bret was a friend to almost everyone he knew. More than 100 people filled the Carle Foundation Hospital Critical Care Unit waiting room to say goodbye before he passed away.

“We knew Bret was the giving and selfless type, and that he would want us to donate his organs,” Kelsey says. 

His legacy continues in the lives of the five people who received his organs through donation. Kelsey says that explaining to a grieving family that their loved one can save lives provides even more than the gift of hope. “It gives us the help to start healing.”

On the first anniversary of Karl’s transplant, he wrote to thank Bret’s family. Later that year, they met each other in person and stay in touch today.

Today, Karl has the energy to play with his son and work on his photography in his free time. Diabetes no longer controls his daily routine. 

“I stopped taking insulin, stopped checking my blood sugar at every meal, and I eat what I want. Just a handful of pills every morning. I have had far more time with my family, energy and concentration.”

When Bret’s family suffered their tragic loss Karl was given an opportunity to begin a healthier future with his. Every day he is thankful for the time he has with family and for the way his life has changed since his life-saving organ transplant. 

Karl says, “Through tragedy can come grace. Through the thoughtfulness of a family at their lowest point can come a blessing for another family. And through that grace I try to be worthy of this gift.”


Register your decision today to become an organ, eye and tissue donor at Talk with your family and friends about your decision to donate life.