The Sister I Didn’t Know I Had (Part 1)

Ten years ago I was yet again a dying man. Regular dialysis kept me alive but drained my body of precious energy so I paid almost weekly visits to the Emergency department. I felt tired, depressed and very sick.

This physical and emotional end-of-the-road exhaustion came exactly three years after my multi-month stay in an intensive care unit. That was when I was dying the first time.


It all started one ordinary Sunday afternoon when I was playing soccer with my friends. During the game I suffered a small scratch on my leg – one that you would probably ignore. So did I!

However, within hours I started to feel unusually weak. That evening I knew something was horribly wrong. By the time I got to a hospital and got a diagnosis, deadly flesh-eating bacteria had already eaten a great chunk of my leg. Who knew it would be just the beginning?


I spent the next six months in an intensive care unit fighting the impossible. With the help of every known piece of life-sustaining machinery I was kept alive. However, with the C-difficile, numerous bouts of pneumonia, blood poisoning, septic shock and another long list of medical hazards, the verdict was in. The doctors didn’t think I would make it.


For some unknown reason and to the great surprise of the medical personnel, I survived it all. However, I couldn’t go back to a normal life. For the next three years I had to have dialysis to keep me alive.

After each session of dialysis my body grew weaker and weaker. Almost weekly visits to Emergency due to numerous complications drew on my stocks of physical and emotional energy.


The only way out was a kidney transplant. Given the average waiting time for a kidney transplant and my deteriorating health I knew that the prospect of receiving a kidney in time was nil. The only option was to find a living donor. I was incredibly lucky, as most of my family members immediately volunteered to help. Unfortunately, my unique blood mix quickly reduced the number of candidates to zero.


To my amazement a few people I barely knew tested their blood to see if they could help but without much success. That’s when I gave up but my wife, Kasia, did not. She kept fighting and spreading the news about my situation.

And then, after months of stress and despair, we met Madeleine. I remember our first meeting. After years of suffering, disappointment and setbacks I had little hope, but the first time I saw this Frenchwoman I felt there was something different about her. Her strong and peaceful persona spread a calming tonic in the air – a feeling I hadn’t experienced for a long time.


After months of medical tests, I was born again on November 28th, 2006. Madeleine had saved my life and become my other sister.

This year we will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of our transplant. During these ten years I could travel, take photographs and share my writing with you. Without Madeleine and her gift there would be no olafphotoblog.


In these years, I have spent a lot of time thinking and debating why a Frenchwoman found so much courage to save one man’s life. Where did her strength come from? What triggered this decision? Why was I so fortunate?


Kasia and I always knew we wanted to meet Madeleine’s family to get to know her history and visit her place of birth. This year, we did just that. This photographic essay is all about Madeleine and her family. This is a story that must be told – over and over again. It is a story of real courage.


When we told our friends that we were heading to Winnipeg, they quipped, “Why would you go there?” It’s super hot (or cold), it’s flat and there are mosquitoes everywhere. After just two days spent with Madeleine and her family, Kasia and I fell in love with this super hot, flat and mosquito-ridden land. Why? Because you cannot separate the land from its people. And what people they are!

Upon our arrival, Madeleine and Raymond (Madeleine’s husband) had an entire apartment ready for us. Here is what we found on the table.


The next day we headed to St.Pierre Jolys where Madeleine was born and where she went to school.. Her school was run by nuns but is now a local museum and that was the first stop.



Madeleine showed us a statue on which her father, Rene Mulaire, had worked for years. She gently put her hand on the figure. We all could feel the warm and calming presence of this great man.


Madeleine and her mother Cecile leafed through some documents and old books. The page with an image of Rene and his employees in front of his pharmacy caught our attention.



Another room in the museum was dedicated to a character created by Madeleine’s mother, named Bicolo. Cecile ran a page in a francophone newspaper dedicated to children all about the character Bicolo. Here is Cecile and the character she created.


…to be continued.


All images taken with the Fujifilm X-Pro2, the XF 35mm F1.4 and  XF 50-140mm F2.8.



2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

36 thoughts on “The Sister I Didn’t Know I Had (Part 1)

  1. I loved this story and the way it has been told, trough words and pictures. So moving, so dramatic and it really shows how much love and gratefulness people can have in them. Thank you all for sharing this beautiful story, you inspire us all in more ways than you know!

  2. This story did touch me, also the way you told it, in words and photos. Thank you for sharing it. More than just photography. Good luck with your health from another Fuji shooter from berlin.

  3. Words cannot express my feelings and my thoughts as I read your words Olaf. I have gained so much from life since my experience as a donor. You really are my brother….and I have a new family to share laughter and joys with. How happy I am that you are so healthy. Life needs to be celebrated!

  4. Your wonderful photography and this story… Madeleine gave us all a huge gift, because we get to enjoy your images every time. And every time you and Kasia go out photographing, you honor Madeleine and her gift to you. In these sometimes horrible times, this essay and story are truly soul sustaining. Thank you, all three of you

    1. Damien,

      Thank you very much for such a kind note. I really appreciate it.

      Kasia and I are big fans of your photography. We are especially fond of your masterful lighting and composition skills. Today with so many modelling photos looking artificial and over-the-top, your imagery is like a breath of fresh air – classy, natural and genuine. Thank you for all your work.

      All the best,


  5. Amazing story, great photos! I can’t imagine what it must feel like to come so close to the end of the road, and then have a whole new path unroll before you.

  6. Bravo Madeleine. This is
    wonderful, moving, extraordinary. Tu es formidable, généreuse et ça fait chaud au coeur de savoir que des êtres humains comme toi existent sur notre planète.

  7. “Straight to the Heart”. This song reminds me of Madeleine & you. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story Olaf, I as sorry to hear of your trial.

  8. What a wonderful and inspiring story told with words and pictures! You have made my day. Clearly your life lessons have inspired your photography. I think this will be a story I will not soon forget. Thank you!

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