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Lung-transplant recipient climbs high to help fight disease

Mike Johnsgets ready Hustle up Hancock Sunday.  |  Brian  Jackson~Sun-Times

Mike Johnson gets ready to Hustle up the Hancock on Sunday. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 26, 2013 9:45AM

Chicagoan Steve Ferkau knows what it’s like to struggle to breathe. For years, that was his fate because of cystic fibrosis, a debilitating lung disease.

He was a bit winded Sunday, but it wasn’t because of his illness: He had just finished climbing 94 flights of stairs at the John Hancock Center.

He climbed in memory of 17-year-old Kari Westberg, an organ donor who died of an aneurysm and whose lungs let Ferkau breathe more easily today. Her gift saved his life and set Ferkau on a path that has helped the Kari’s Klimbers team he launched to raise nearly $300,000 over the past 11 years to battle lung disease by participating in the Hustle Up the Hancock stair-climb fund-raiser.

The 16th annual event, which raised $1.1 million this year, was even more special for Ferkau this year. That’s because it was his first climb since he got a kidney transplant last year, thanks to a donation from Kari’s Klimbers team member and Yorkville resident Alex Redenius, 28.

This year’s event attracted about 4,000 participants ages 6 to 87, and the 1,632 steps each of them took will raise money to fund lung disease research, education and advocacy.

“Amazing,” Ferkau said of Redenius’ decision to donate her kidney and of Kari’s gift.

“I never imagined I’d be alive 13 years after Kari’s death,” he said as he waited along with his wife and other Kari’s Klimbers team members to begins the climb Sunday morning. The team has grown from 26 participants in 2004 to 120 who participated Sunday. It was on track to raise about $25,000 this year.

Raising money wasn’t Ferkau’s original focus.

“I’ve always done this with the intent of honoring Kari and her friends,” he said. “They saved my life, and for me it was to tell people about her. . . . To keep her spirit alive.

“Well then the money started happening. . . . We raised almost $300,000. That’s helped so many people like me, and if I had a chance to help someone else like that, how can you not?” he said.

Kari, who was living in Iowa at the time of her death, was described as a happy teenager who enjoyed sports, particularly volleyball, performed in the band and was a member of the National Honor Society.

Redenius, who has participated in the climb seven times, said she decided to become an organ donor because of Kari, and that led to her decision to donate her kidney to Ferkau. She was a friend and neighbor of Kari’s and among roughly 20 team members on hand Sunday who knew her.

“Knowing how much Steve really appreciated Kari, it was just second-nature,” Redenius said of her kidney donation. “It’s neat to see how life truly does go on, and the decision that Kari made 13 years ago to donate her organs, how huge of an impact that it really has on Steve’s life.”

Redenius estimated that she finished the climb Sunday in about 27 minutes. Ferkau’s time typically ranges from 45 to 60 minutes, he said, noting, “That’s because I love to talk to the other climbers,” along the way.

“My parents thought I’d never make it out of my teens. I’m 52, and these years I’ve watched all these advances . . . that have helped extend my life. In the stairwells, I get to remind all these people that they’re why this happened, that they did this for me and for others,” he said.

Also participating in the event Sunday, for the seventh time, was Brookfield resident Jennifer Johnson, a lung transplant nurse at Loyola University Health System. But this year was special. She was joined for the first time by her husband, Mike, who was diagnosed a few years ago with a rare lung disorder that left him with 60 percent normal lung function. Her team of 15, called Loyola’s Lung Angels, were on track to raise $7,000 at this year’s event.

“This year has really been in his honor,” she said.

Joining them in the climb was their son, Payton, and his friend, Adam Strcelczyk, both 12.

Payton said he was making the climb because “I’m really proud of my dad.”

Before the climb, the two boys had hoped to make the trek in 15 minutes. It took longer and was tougher than they thought it would be.

“My legs are burning,” Adam said after his climb. They both felt a sense of accomplishment.

So did Mike Johnson. Before the event, he said, “I won’t be the fastest, but I’ll get there at some point.”

And he did — in about an hour. “I didn’t know if I would be able to do it and, I did it,” Mike Johnson said with a smile. “I’m happy I was able to do it in front of my family. It was very rewarding.”

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