A Stranger’s Gut Feeling Saves a Life

Kidney donation leads to a lifelong friendship

Nate Rivera and Tim SaylorMore than 150,000 people in the U.S. are living full and active lives with transplanted kidneys. Nate Rivera was one of those people – until he experienced kidney failure for the second time.

Nate had moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States at age 9, living with his mom first in Chicago and then in Springfield, Missouri. Born with Alport syndrome, a rare inherited disease that damages the kidneys with a gradual buildup of scar tissue, Nate's first kidney failure occurred when he was 16.

"My body just took over," he says. "I was weak and tired all the time. I missed school. I missed time with friends. I was plugged into a machine for six months straight. It was like I was slowly dying and there was nothing I could do."

Nate's father visited from Puerto Rico to donate a kidney to his son. The gift gave Nate several good years, during which he moved to the Kansas City area and opened a barbershop in Olathe, Kansas. But the respite was short-lived. After about five years, the kidney failed, sending Nate back to dialysis.

"It was very upsetting, but I tried to hang on to a positive attitude as much as possible," he says. During this time, Nate got married and became a father. "There were times that I really felt like giving up, but my baby girl brought me joy and strength."

With the move to Kansas City, Nate transferred his care to The University of Kansas Health System. Nephrologist Dennis Diederich, MD, supported Nate through three and a half years of dependency on dialysis to filter his blood. Nephrologist Amna Ilahe, MD, took the helm of Nate's care following Dr. Diederich's retirement and was ready to support transplant care at the first opportunity.

Living kidney donation: hope for a better tomorrow

More than 100,000 people are waiting for a miracle, but it only takes one person to make a difference. If you're a healthy adult age 18 or older with normal kidney function, you could possibly save a life through living kidney donation. Learn more about the process and evaluation.

Searching for a miracle

During the years, Nate was flooded with kidney donation offers from family, members of his church and clients of his barbershop. However, a suitable match proved difficult to find due to the antibodies in his blood from the previous transplant. Antibodies attack transplanted organs and can cause immediate rejection. Desperate and frustrated, Nate's wife, Erica, turned to social media to appeal for help.

"When a person is in need of a kidney, our team encourages them to tell their story – at work, at church, on Facebook," says Melissa Fowler, RN, transplant nurse coordinator for the health system. "If you don't tell people what you need, they have no idea how to help. Someone very well may step forward."

Tim Saylor of Columbia, Missouri, became that someone. A childhood friend of Erica's, Tim paid special attention to one Facebook post about Nate, whom Tim had never met.

"One day Erica posted Nate's blood type, and it was the same as my blood type," Tim says. "I realized I had the chance to help someone. Why wouldn't I?"

With the support of his then-girlfriend, Jes, Tim was tested. Initial results showed he wasn't a match. But, spurred by a gut feeling, Tim asked if there was any other test that could be done to be certain.

"I couldn't believe I wasn't a match," Tim says. "I told Jes that it just didn't feel right. I truly felt there was a reason I knew about Nate, a reason I felt compelled to get tested, that this was something I was meant to do."

Despite the minute chance of a different result, a genetic DNA test was conducted. Tim's gut was proven right. While Tim's kidney wasn't a perfect match, a treatment called plasmapheresis – which filters the blood to remove antibodies – would allow Nate to receive Tim's kidney after all.

"Tim told me he just felt like this was his calling," Nate says. "A living person who didn't know me at all, but was ready to give me a kidney. It was the most selfless thing to see."

The care team planned for the dual surgeries, preparing Nate with plasmapheresis.

"The second transplant is always more difficult than the first," says Dr. Ilahe. "As of the first transplant, the body begins to produce antibodies that will fight the second transplant. The plasmapheresis treatment removed the antibodies from Nate's blood before transplant, reducing the risk of rejection and providing the best chance for long-term success."

Gaining strength and building friendships

On February 17, 2015, transplant surgeon Timothy Schmitt, MD, performed Nate's second lifesaving kidney transplant. Thanks to the experienced surgeons of the health system's transplant program, transplant patients often recover more quickly and get back to their lives sooner.

"We truly offer a fantastic team," says Dr. Ilahe. "We have excellent surgeons, coordinators and nephrologists. We are proponents of living donation, which is the best option for patients when it is possible. We are very proactive with our patients and committed to their lifelong health."

Just a month after the transplant surgery, Tim couldn't have agreed more.

"Seeing Nate was amazing," Tim says. "When I first met him, he was gray. He had no color at all. That started improving right away. He was able to move around and play with his daughter again."

"The University of Kansas Health System is a great place," Nate says. "The providers are so capable and friendly. I've never had a bad experience."

Once strangers, Nate and Tim quickly began to build a friendship. Tim had proposed to Jes on Valentine's Day, just days before the surgery. "I figured if she was OK with my donating a kidney to someone I'd never met, she was a keeper," he says. He was beginning to give thought to planning the wedding. Several months after their surgeries, when Nate and Tim were sitting together as Buck O'Neil legacy seat honorees to promote organ donation awareness at a Kansas City Royals game, Tim asked Nate to serve as a groomsman.

The families have grown very close since the transplant. Erica and Jes are "like sisters," Tim says. The families have traveled together several times, including a vacation to Nate's hometown in Puerto Rico. Both families' firstborns were daughters, and both found out within months of each other that each family would welcome a son.

"He's like a family member now," Nate says of Tim. "I know there has to be a God out there to put that belief in his heart. Not a lot of people would give a part of their body to a stranger. That right there is a miracle. It's superhero stuff."

"Apparently, I gave him the kidney with the baldness gene, though, because Nate lost all his hair a year later," Tim jokes. But then he speaks seriously. "Everyone makes a bigger deal about this than it felt like to me. It was just something that was weighing on me, something I felt drawn to do."

Though Tim is humble, his act meant everything to Nate and his family.

"He stepped out of his boundaries and said, 'I'm the guy,'" Nate says. "I can't explain that mentality. He is my brother now, for sure. He gave me another chance at life. Anything he ever needs from me, I'm there."