Written by Sarah Razner for Because of Organ Donation
In Fall 2018, I walked into Marian University’s Common Grounds for an interview. It was not the first I had done there in my time as a reporter, but it became the most impactful. That night, I had the pleasure of meeting Nicole Braatz, Paul Osterholm, and their families, who were coming together to talk about kidney donation.
Nineteen years before, work had brought Paul and Nicole together to meet at the cafe, and the connection—and social media—had reunited them, this time for a different purpose: for Paul to donate his kidney to Nicole.
As they told me the story of their donation journey, I remember the chills running through my body, even though we were sitting in front of a fire. It wasn’t only all the ways their match seemed fated, but also the family dynamic that had formed between them and their loved ones, and Nicole and Paul’s powerful determination to help others.
That resolve paid off. The donation was not only life changing for Nicole and Paul, but also for the many lives their story touched— including me. Since that meeting, I have had the honor of watching their impact spread around Wisconsin and the world. Paul and Nicole took me along with them on their journey, and, although all I had done was to tell their story on paper, they treated me as if I had gone through the rigors of donation with them, offering more kindness and generosity than was necessary. From academic symposiums, to flag raisings, to Rotary lunches, to social media groups, they shared their important message of encouraging others to “share your spare,” and people listened.
I answered calls from those who were seeking transplants; who, because of Paul, Nicole, and the rest of the Fond du Lac kidney donation community, also had a word of their need shared. I received emails from others who, inspired by Paul and Nicole’s transplant, went on to save the lives of complete strangers, and I had the chance to write some of their stories. With each interaction, I was moved by the domino effect of goodwill Paul and Nicole had helped to fuel and felt even more privileged to bear witness to it, and allow others to do so as well.
In a time when negativity can overwhelm the good, it’s easy to forget the lengths human beings will go to help each other. But Paul and Nicole’s story never let me forget this. Instead, it has taught me how one act can truly change the world, and I know they are far from done inspiring.
When I met Nicole Braatz in 2001, I had no idea over 15 years later I would save her life through a kidney donation. They hired me to run Marian University’s Common Grounds when it opened in 1999, and the president of the university, Dr. Richard Ridenour, commissioned Nicole to design the logo and sign through her small business, Nicole’s Sign Works.
Years later, we gathered with our families beneath that sign in the weeks leading up to our transplant, wearing shirts reading “Share Your Spare Kidney,” and we couldn’t help but see the hand fate was playing throughout the process. God had a plan, and He still has a plan. This journey has helped me to listen to His whispers more.
Nicole’s Journey Begins Here
It was an unexpected diagnosis for Nicole, then 48, who had no major health issues throughout her life. When she began experiencing symptoms of kidney failure, both Nicole and her doctors didn’t recognize them. At the doctor’s office on December 20, 2017, she said she had a sinus infection which wasn’t going away. Amid flu season, the doctor told her she, too, had the virus. But her symptoms persisted. She couldn’t keep down whatever she consumed. Food tasted odd. She couldn’t catch her breath. Her legs swelled from her knees to her ankles, to an extent where her jeans no longer fit. Going to the doctor multiple times, the doctor continued to tell her she had the flu. One day, a month into being sick, she took a sip of coffee and threw it up. She knew she had to get to the bottom of her illness.
On her fourth visit to the doctor, she went to urgent care instead and told that doctor something was wrong. He ran blood tests and put her on an IV as she waited for the results. An hour later, her life completely changed as the doctor told her she was days, or even hours, away from going into cardiac arrest, and her kidneys were functioning at three percent. People start dialysis at 15% on average.
The cause for her kidney failure was — and is still — unknown.
The shock set in first. “When he told me that, I was like, no, no,” she said.
The kidney failure made Nicole one of about 1,200 people waiting for a kidney in Wisconsin, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS. Nicole looked first to her seven sisters. With a blood type O, while Nicole can donate to anyone, only those with O blood type can donate to her. In her family, matching sisters either had high blood pressure or juvenile diabetes, disqualifying them from giving. The rest of her sisters had blood type A or B.
“We weren’t even thinking. We thought for sure someone was going to be an O,” said Candy Braatz-Markert, Nicole’s sister.
In the United States, the average wait time for a kidney is three to five years “at most centers,” according to the National Kidney Foundation. At UW Health, where Nicole was being treated, the median time for patients to receive a transplant from 2010 to 2015 was about 20 months. But this differs with blood type. Wait times for those in need of a kidney with type A or B blood came in around two to three years, but with O, it was five years or more.
From Facebook Friend to Kidney Donation
Not wanting to wait years for a deceased donor, Nicole’s family took to social media to get the word out, writing a letter about her story and posting it on Facebook. They received hundreds of replies, according to her mother, Mary, with almost 30 stating they had her blood type. The response left them all in tears. My wife Janet was one of those who saw the post. She went to school with Nicole’s sisters growing up. Since Common Grounds, Nicole and I had only seen each other once or twice, but when we learned about her health problems, we donated to her GoFundMe page. Then, on Memorial Day weekend 2018, as Janet scrolled through Facebook, the post crafted by Nicole and her family appeared.
“Honey, what do you think?” she asked me.
I thought we were going to buy more raffle tickets. But when I read the post, knowing I was a blood match, I messaged Nicole, and then reached out to UW Health’s Living Donor Program. Having taught our children Paul Jr. and Maggie Rose to give back, our kids were supportive of my decision to pursue donation. Maggie, around that same time, was trying to donate her own kidney to a man in Chilton, Wisconsin. However, in the phone interview, she was told she could not donate because of being allergic to Tylenol, since following kidney donation her body could not metabolize ibuprofen.
A month later, I received a call from UW Health Transplant Coordinator, Leza Warnke, and we spoke on the phone for nearly an hour before she asked if I could come down for further tests. Going through a day of tests, I passed one after another. The only time I came close to failing was because of my blood pressure. They told me I could drink coffee while waiting for my next test, and I had sipped two shots of espresso and two cups of coffee.
In case I wasn’t a match for Nicole, I had agreed that I would donate to somebody else to move her up the list as part of the match donation program. In this way, if I matched someone in Iowa, we would “flip,” and they would send my kidney to Iowa and Nicole’s donor’s kidney would come to Wisconsin.
Following the battery of tests, the team of doctors smiled as my wife Janet and I were leaving. About seven percent of people who go through the process actually match. She could tell they saw something positive in my test results.
“I think you’re coming back,” she whispered.
Soon, UW Health called. Nicole and I had matched four out of six antigens; family members typically match from zero to two antigens. Rarely do people match six out of six, and I matched four out of six. They said that’s just a bonus because it means less chance of rejection. When I received the news that I was a match, I called my wife. She told me not to call Nicole until she was home from work. Not able to contain myself, I called her anyway, reaching her on the road. I told her to pull over, but she didn’t have time before I shared the news. She was shocked! Nicole had gotten her hopes up. After all, the other 28 individuals that tested before me did not match her.
“I thought you were just calling to talk,” Nicole said to me.
The hand of God was at work. Outside our house that day, looking over the lake as the sun set, I felt compelled to take a picture of an early sunset sky. In it, an angel-shaped cloud appeared, kneeling and praying. The spiritual journey has been remarkable. I feel blessed to have been able to do this. We feel honored that we were able to give Nicole new life.
My wife and I met in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1985. I was born and raised in Waukon, Iowa, and Janet was born and raised in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. When we met, Janet was a student at Viterbo College, and I worked third shift at the nearby Kwik Trip.
Janet shared with me, “Who thought I would meet an Iowa boy, be where we are today, and be here to help Nicole?”
The date of the transplant also carries significance. Given the option to choose October 10 or 11 for the transplant, I picked October 10 so I could be home to watch the Iowa Hawkeyes play football, and would be one day closer to recovery for when our son Paul Jr. and daughter-in-law Katie were due with their first child. Our granddaughter Oakleigh was born Monday, October 15th. However, for Nicole and the Braatz family, the date meant much more than football. When Nicole was 21, her father, Harold, passed away, and her mom gave Nicole his briefcase as she started Nicole’s Sign Works. The passcode was his birthday 10-10. Ever since, that number has been a constant in her life.
“I almost fell over,” Nicole said.
The number only grew in meaning as UW Health told her that while my surgery would take place at 8:00 a.m., Nicole’s would be at10:10 a.m. Nicole remembers that the nurse told her 10:10 represents new beginnings. On the way home, Nicole searched what the nurse had shared, finding that it was “a strong angel number.” When you look it up, the very first line is, “If you are consistently seeing 10-10, it’s not a coincidence. Your guardian angels are bringing you to new beginnings.”
Time for a New Beginning
With our surgery approaching, I started counting down the days, and Nicole was counting down the pokes left for dialysis, which she underwent for four hours a day, three days a week. Throughout this process, our families grew closer.
“My heart is overwhelmed with love for this family. They have been so loving and kind,” said Nicole.
Paul said, “She’s going to be my sister.” “Mom finally got her boy,” Nicole joked.
We saw a symbol of that love in the gift the Braatz family gave me when we first met as a group. In 2003, I donated bone marrow at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Years ago, I had checked the “Be the Match” box while donating blood. They sent my bone marrow to a young lady in Barcelona, Spain. To date, I do not know who she is or how she is feeling. In the hospital, after the donation, I used a bell to summon help. Adding to this tradition, the Braatz family gave me a personalized cow bell to convey their gratitude, although they say they don’t feel they can ever convey it enough.
“I don’t even know what to say to you half the time. What do you say to somebody who gave you the gift of life?” said Nicole.
On Wednesday, October 10, 2018, my family came from as far as California, Iowa, and Minnesota to gather in Madison, and as my kidney was removed and placed in Nicole, a new beginning started for both of us. We were both out of the hospital by the weekend.
“Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” Matthew 19:26.
As I reflect on the past two years, we have much to be thankful for because of organ donation. Nicole is doing great! I’m doing great! We have met so many wonderful people and friends since our story came out. I would like to give special thanks to Sarah Razner, a gifted writer and a dear friend. Nicole and I invited Sarah to join us and our families on our journey. Without her telling our story, I believe that there would not be as many donors and recipients, today, who are celebrating their new lives.
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