By: Jennifer Crammer-Miller
In October 2021, Michele Hagel scrolled through her Facebook feed. After scanning typical posts of family news, friend’s vacations, and general updates—one post jumped out. That’s when she learned that her Medtronic colleague and friend, Mark Bubalo, needed a kidney.
Michele and Mark had worked together for several years, and the news came as a complete surprise. “I remembered Mark as a very fit and healthy person… needing a kidney transplant just didn’t seem possible,” Michele explained.
Mark’s kidney complications began in childhood. Later in life, Mark’s doctor diagnosed him with Alport Syndrome (a genetic, progressive kidney disease). By 2019, his kidney function had deteriorated to where he needed a kidney transplant.
But receiving a kidney from the donor waiting list takes patience and time. While waiting for a deceased donor kidney, Mark required dialysis treatments to survive. And this waiting period could take as long as seven years.
So, his doctor encouraged him to seek a living donor instead—to benefit his health, shorten the wait, and reduce the toll that dialysis would place on his body
He hesitated. “I didn't want to feel like I was out there begging for someone to do this for me,” Bubalo said. “And my doctor’s like, ‘You're not begging, you're not asking. You're just telling your story.’”
These words of advice from M Health transplant surgeon Dr. Vanessa Humphreville, became lifesaving. She informed Mark about the National Kidney Foundation’s The Big Ask, The Big Give (BABG) webinar. (This educational workshop provides patients with tools on how to share their story and helps raise awareness for more living donors.)
Facebook was one of those recommended tools. And a few months later, Mark mustered up his bravery and hit the post button. It was a difficult post for Mark to share. He wrote, “Many of you who know me understand I’m not one to share too many personal details. And as much as I want to keep fighting on my own, it’s no longer realistic without the help of others. So now I am reaching out for help.”
That post reached Michele, and it played over and over in her mind. “I said a quick prayer, mostly without thinking: God, please help Mark find someone to be his kidney donor.”
The response Michele heard from her prayer followed within seconds. “Michele, you’re someone.”
“As my mind thought of my most effective counter arguments, I had a flashback to a conversation my husband and I had a few years before. As we were standing in our kitchen, we talked about what we wanted our legacy to be, how we wanted to serve, and what difference we wanted to make for others. I told my husband, Andy, ‘I don’t want to go through the motions anymore. I want to live my life with intention and generosity,’” Michele recounted.
So, she set out to do just that.
When she messaged Mark to let him know that she had signed up to donate, it didn’t click for him at first. “And then five or 10 minutes later, it finally hit me,” Mark said.
As the extensive donation screening process began, Michele caught up with Mark at least once a month. Despite his constant positivity, she could see the strain that kidney disease and dialysis placed upon him.
Mark juggled a rigorous and exhausting weekly schedule. Hours of at-home dialysis treatments followed his full workdays.
Seeing Mark’s decline amplified Michele’s motivation, and she knew she was making the right decision.
In August, Michele’s donor coordinator informed her she wasn’t a direct match for Mark. The team approved her, however, for a Paired Exchange Program. This program is like a kidney swap. Her kidney would save a compatible person in need, and in exchange, another living donor, compatible with Mark, would save him. After hearing the news, Michele cried tears of joy.
Next, a kidney patient in Portland, Oregon, received Michele’s kidney, and a young woman from Minnesota donated her kidney to Mark. Michele’s generosity directed toward Mark doubled by also saving a patient’s life on the west coast.
“I can honestly say this was the best decision I’ve ever made. And I’m so grateful I could do this,” Michele said.
Obviously, Mark is grateful too.
After his transplant in November 2022, Mark felt “incredible,” as his kidney function improved instantly.
Before the progression of Mark’s kidney disease, he had been an active athlete who participated in various endurance races. Now, with renewed health, compliments of Michele’s benevolence, he once again enjoys physical fitness.
Mark thinks back to his hesitancy to share his story and has learned a profound lesson: people need the support of one another to get through life.
Michele agrees. “I’m just so grateful that I had a healthy kidney to donate, that I was able to do this, (and) I had the support of family and friends…”
Living donors and kindness can rise from unexpected places, even Facebook. And Mark and Michele, once colleagues, are now so much more. Marks sums it up. “She’s just an incredible friend.”
Note from the National Kidney Foundation: If you are a kidney patient and seek tools to find a living donor, learn more about The Big Ask, The Big Give Program (BABG) here. If you have questions about living donation, you will find additional information here.