Helping Hand For Terminally Ill Hunters

Milwaukee — It’s not like Brigid O’Donoghue’s life had been uneventful over the first 36 years.

The Milwaukee native grew up in a large, loving and often rambunctious family that included six brothers and two sisters.

She developed a keen appreciation for good health after she contracted viral encephalitis as a youngster and battled seizures for two decades.

After high school, she had two children of her own. And she co-founded a company.

Despite all that, her signal event came in 2000 while helping to fulfill the wish of a dying man.

Of all things, it was a hunt that changed her life.

“I never hunted,” said O’Donoghue, 49, of Pittsville, Wis. “I never had any interest. But my life hasn’t been the same since.”

O’Donoghue was asked by a business associate if she knew a place where a man with terminal cancer could deer hunt.

Though she didn’t hunt and didn’t own land, she responded in the only fashion she knows: “We’ll find a place,” she said.

Within days, Mike Griffey, a 42-year-old from Orange, Texas, arrived in Wisconsin. He was suffering from pancreatic cancer.

O’Donoghue traveled with Griffey to Danny Schumann’s property in Wild Rose. She recalls the tears of gratitude in Griffey’s eyes at the end of the hunt.

Right there and then, United Special Sportsman Alliance was born.

“Some people want to go to Disney World, some want to meet a Hollywood star,” O’Donoghue said. “And others want to fulfill an outdoors dream. We’re here to help them.”

Since 2000, the non-profit, volunteer-run organization has granted more than 9,000 wishes to terminally ill patients and military veterans. The organization has more than 500 volunteers.

USSA makes it as easy as possible on the family of the patient or vet. O’Donoghue takes care of all the arrangements and paperwork. Donations pay for transportation and lodging.

Volunteers and guides donate their services. Taxidermists donate mounts.

Along the way, O’Donoghue also has become a hunter. She helped guide two young hunters on an upland bird hunt earlier this month in the “Under Broken Wings” program of the Ruffed Grouse Society.

And this year, O’Donoghue succeeded in the first effort to reduce license costs associated with the trips.

Working with supporters, O’Donoghue helped get legislation passed in Texas that allows non-residents with life-threatening illnesses to purchase a hunting license at the resident rate.

The difference is about $300, enough to pay for a plane ticket or allow an extra family member to accompany the ill hunter, O’Donoghue said.

The bill, HB 1718, was signed into law this summer by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

It is called the Mike Griffey Law after the first hunter O’Donoghue helped.

The first non-resident to hunt in Texas after the bill was signed was Ron Vruwink of Rudolph, Wis.

Like Griffey, Vruwink had pancreatic cancer. Vruwink died Sept. 25.

“This opportunity means so much to the patients and their families,” O’Donoghue said. “So often we see photos and hear stories of the hunt at the funeral. Lower costs will make it more accessible and help more people go after their dreams.”

The Texas law limits the number of participants to 100 a year. The license buyer must be sponsored by a non-profit organization.

O’Donoghue would like to get similar legislation in place across the nation. Her sights are set on Wisconsin.

It would be fitting to have such a law in place in the state where Griffey had his last hunt.

And where the woman who helps fulfill so many hunting wishes makes her home.