Next Doors: The Gift that Keeps On Giving
Kidney transplant brings family closer together
This is a story of giving part of oneself to others.
Brad Nagel is a mortgage banker in Phoenix with a large extended family. About 20 years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease. It was a fluke — he had just had a daughter and wanted to get some more life insurance just in case. So he took a physical, and there it was.
“Initially, when I started to get treated on it, they told me I would need a kidney transplant in about a year,” he said. “But I tried some experimental medications, and eventually, we were able to kind of pause it. It was still moving forward, but at a very slow pace.”
Nagel characterizes it as a “Stage 3” situation at that time, but in 2019, things took a turn for the worse — he advanced to “end-stage.” Looking for advice, he reached out to his uncle, who had been a liver transplant recipient in the past. After that conversation, word about Nagel’s situation spread quickly through his family, including to his cousin, Tami Butcher.
Butcher is well-known in Valley circles. The Chandler resident’s family owns the Aunt Chilada’s restaurant near Piestewa Peak, and she is a “purpose partner” with Think Goodness, the parent company of the Origami Owl brand of jewelry. She also sits on the East Valley Women’s League board and is extensively involved in charity events.
“Literally the same day, I had Tami and other members of the family wanting to apply to be kidney donors,” Nagel said. “I was really blessed and really lucky that so many people wanted to help.”
But there’s a long path from “I want to help” to “I can help” when it comes to donating a kidney.
Before we get to the rest of the story, some context. March is National Kidney Month, which organizations like the National Kidney Foundation of Arizona (disclosure: a client of mine) use to raise awareness around kidney disease.
Kidney disease is incredibly common — one in every three people is at risk of it, and it’s possible to have advanced disease without feeling any symptoms. And as you might imagine, it’s a high-risk population for the effects of COVID-19.
Late-stage kidney disease can, of course, be fatal. In many cases there’s only one potential cure — a full kidney transplant. Kidney transplants are the most common organ transplants, but there’s still a supply-and-demand problem. According to the National Kidney Foundation, in Arizona, 1,621 individual candidates are currently on the waitlist for an organ transplant, of which 1,344 are waiting for a kidney. Nationally, 106,493 people are waiting for a transplant, with 90,225 of those waiting for a kidney.
And even if a donor and recipient are a match, there’s no guarantee that the transplant will be successful. Which brings us back to Brad and Tami.
“As soon as we found out he was in the end stages and needed a kidney, like, yesterday, we all applied immediately,” Butcher said. “Slowly but surely, they go through this testing with questions at first, and all the things have to line up. Slowly, slowly people were not able to donate, and it just came down to me.”
What was it like to make a monumental decision so quickly? “People always ask — it is a big decision — but I felt like the moment our family came together and said, ‘We’re going to donate to Brad,’ it wasn’t even a thought of ‘Yeah, what if?’ It was 100 percent that if I was the match, I was never going to look back.”
Butcher started an extensive examination process to make sure she was physically — and mentally — ready for the road ahead. Along with the physical examinations and tests, there’s an extensive psychological component. The doctors at Mayo Clinic want to make sure the donor is comfortable with the decision — and understands the reality that transplants don’t always work.
Doctors determined in late 2019 that Butcher and Nagel were a possible match, and things started moving quickly. Then the pandemic hit, and all the momentum stopped. It turns out that kidney transplants, as crazy as this may sound, are considered elective surgeries — which stopped at various points during the pandemic. “It was so shocking to us that they had to postpone it,” Butcher said.
Finally, in August 2020, doctors told Butcher that she and Nagel were a perfect match. They hadn’t told Nagel yet, though, so Butcher asked if her family could surprise Brad with the news, which they did in a “car parade” in front of his house.
“I will never forget. It was one of the greatest days of my life,” Butcher said.
“Seeing all the family out there — and it is not uncommon for Thanksgiving or Easter to have 35 of us there — it took me a minute or so to realize what was going on, that we had gotten the green light,” Nagel said.
The surgeries to remove Butcher’s kidney and implant it into Nagel were a few weeks later, in September 2020. Butcher’s recovery was flawless. Nagel’s — not so much.
“Initially, it was a combination of my body trying to fight off Tami’s perfect and wonderful kidney,” Nagel said. “I ended up having a tougher time than they usually see with things like this. I was in the hospital for a few weeks. They were concerned that the kidney disease that ruined my other two kidneys was attacking the new kidney.”
Nagel said he really didn’t start feeling improvement until about 80 or 90 days after, around Christmastime. By then, he was finally ready to go back to work and resume his life.
And then he got COVID-19.
“Honestly, the only place I had gone was my own home and to Mayo,” he said. “Somewhere in that, I got COVID. It lasted in me for about three or four months. I tried everything they had in their arsenal, but my immune system was so weak. I thought I might be a long-hauler. But finally, in about June, I started to feel a little bit better, have a bit better wind.”
Now, after months and years of fighting kidney disease, Nagel feels great. He’s playing tennis a couple of times a week, working full-time and “counting my blessings every day.”
The moral of the story, of course, is giving. Butcher gave Nagel an extraordinary gift, one that literally saved his life. And she got something out of it as well.
“I think it’s just the fear people have of the unknown, but I’m living a completely normal life, the same as before the donation,” she said. “If anything, I might be living a bit better, because I’m more aware of my health and taking care of my body.”
“I wouldn’t have asked on my own,” Nagel said. “I wouldn’t have asked. And all of the sudden, I didn’t have to ask. I still feel a little bit guilty about it, the sacrifice Tami has made, and her family, husband and children — they were all so supportive of this. It really blew me away.”