Four years ago, Le Sueur resident Mark Aune watched a dark greenish-brown liquid exit out of his stomach, flow through a plastic tube and settle into a bag beside his hospital bed. He had just received a new liver, and as that excess bile left his body, new energy seemed to be entering.
“I felt good to be awake,” he said. “After years of just misery, you’re back to feeling like a human again.”
Soon after feeling his body and mind restored, Aune, 64, realized he inherited a responsibility. He had just received the liver of an 18-year-old who died in a car accident, and because of it, he had a new chance to live. He wanted to make it count.
Now Aune works at Park Elementary in Le Sueur as a Minnesota Reading Corps volunteer tutor. He works one-on-one with students, K-3, to speed up their reading development. He’s also finishing a bachelor’s in English at Minnesota State University, Mankato to complement his work.
He’s loving every second of his work, and most importantly to him, he is using his own gift to give back.
“The students made drawings for me,” he said. “I’m going to bundle them up and send them to the family (of the organ donor) with a letter. I’m going to say that I’m able to give to these children because of your son. These children are directly affected by your son’s gift.”
Before being diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, Aune worked with his adult son, Keith, in the dry cleaning business.
Aune bought Star Cleaners in Le Sueur in 1980 before he and Keith started traveling to build dry cleaners in different states. They did that for about 19 years.
“I was never home. I was always on the road. That was the way life was gonna be,” he said.
But things changed. Aune started getting sick and had to exit the business around 2000.
He continued to get sicker until he was diagnosed in 2005. Primary sclerosing cholangitis is a disease of the liver, in which the organ’s bile ducts become damaged and eventually inoperable. Without the ducts, bile, a bitter fluid produced by the liver and intended to reach the small intestine, has nowhere to go.
The disease can lead to tumors and liver failure. Doctors told Aune he wouldn’t likely live more than five more years, and by 2008, he found they were right.
“I was so sick, I couldn’t hardly move,” he said.
As he was nearing death in October 2009, doctors at the University of Minnesota called him in for a liver transplant. That day, though, turned from hopeful to crushing, as doctors informed him a half hour before his scheduled surgery that the liver would not work.
Aune returned home defeated. He accepted he would die. He had the important conversations with those closest to him, stopped worrying about trivial matters. He actually found a pleasantness in acceptance.
“The most peaceful thing I’ve ever done was realizing this is going to be the end,” he said.
But things changed. On Nov. 11, 2009, the university called him in again. This time the liver was usable and the transplant was successful. After years of misery, it took only days for the life in Aune to be restored.
Using a gift
Despite his joy and thankfulness at being alive, Aune knew his survival was tied to a tragedy. For him to continue living, he knew a mother had to bury her child for him to continue living.
Only weeks after receiving his new liver, the 60-year-old Aune started college at MSU. He wanted to prepare himself for work in education, but also wanted to better understand the young man who had saved his life.
“I was getting an idea of what this young fellow was like,” he said. “I wanted to know what is happening with young people today.”
He was inspired during his time at MSU to work with youth, specifically in reading. He found out about Minnesota Reading Corps, a statewide initiative to help children become successful readers by third grade.
Aune joined the Park Elementary Reading Corps in the fall of this school year. He, fellow tutor Marilyn Stutsman and internal coach Elizabeth Siemers are all in their first year in the program.
Aune and Stutsman, both volunteers, work individually with students at or below grade level in reading ability to help jump levels and be strong readers for when learning changes at older ages. Siemers provides extra support to the tutors.
“It’s so important, because this is the setup students need for their older years,” Siemers said. “After third grade, they read to learn [rather than learn to read].”
All three love being a part of the program and feel it is truly beneficial to the students.
“I love it,” Stutsman said. “It’s fun. To see a child struggling and then working with them and seeing them achieve success is a great joy.”
One of the students Aune works with is Teegan Rosenthal. She is a second grade student at Park, and they read together each day in school and at Kid’s Club after school. He helps her to work on her speed, pushes her to ask questions of what she is reading and to relate it to her own life.
For Aune, the work carries an even deeper meaning. Each time he gives to one of the children, he is paying forward his own gift. And what Aune gives to Teegan, she pays forward as well.
“I read to my little sister,” she said. “If I read to her, she’ll know how to get better.”
Reach Reporter Philip Weyhe at 507-931-8576 or follow him on Twitter.com @LNHphilip.