Patient stories

All in the Family

February 15, 2022, 8:21pm EST

A photo of 4 people, one man, one woman and two kids

Story and Interview by: Jennifer Cramer-Miller

The concept of karma suggests the good we put into the world comes back to us. Such seems to be the case for Jeremiah Bartel, a 37-year-old man dedicated to kidney awareness and helping others, while he survives on peritoneal dialysis. Cheerful and outgoing, Jeremiah shared his hopes of finding a living donor, and his story with kidney disease.

And what a story it is. 

As a young boy, Jeremiah (and his family) worried about his uncle’s health. At first, the doctors were baffled, and eventually Jeremiah’s Uncle John suffered kidney failure. He was diagnosed with a rare, genetic kidney disease called Alport syndrome. This diagnosis prompted the whole family to get tested. That is when many in the family learned they would suffer the same fate. Including Jeremiah. He was nine years old.

Young Jeremiah saw his uncle hooked up to monitors and machines, while battling for his life. Shy of celebrating a double-digit birthday, it seemed incomprehensible that he shared his uncle’s disease. Jeremiah explains, “I remember being bummed, but I didn’t fully understand the complications at hand.” He didn’t face it alone. Two of his sisters and several cousins learned they were carriers or had the disease. 

Jeremiah’s goal (set with his trusted nephrologist, Dr. Sandy Popham) was to hit 40 before requiring dialysis.

He came close. Last year, in January 2021, at 36, Jeremiah started peritoneal dialysis treatments at home. With his good nature and giving spirit, Jeremiah and his family spread awareness about kidney disease. His parents, owners of Beaver Bay Agate Shop, along with Jeremiah and his wife Amber, created a fundraiser that raised more than $10,000 for The National Kidney Foundation.

For a man who faces and sees ample hardship, Jeremiah remains remarkably upbeat. When asked how he does it, he explains his philosophy: “Keep your head up and keep moving.” The hardest part of dialysis is the stolen time away from his active boys. Gabriel (9) and Orion (6) remember when Dad didn’t have to leave family activities to hook up to a machine. It pulls at his heart when he overhears them say, “I want my old dad back. When will Dad get a kidney?”

Jeremiah dreams of regaining his active-dad energy to show up 100% for his boys and seeks a living donor transplant. Plenty of people have shown up for Jeremiah, testing to see if they can be his kidney donor. Although the support encourages him, the results have been discouraging. During our first conversation, no one had qualified, including Jeremiah’s cousin Heather, who’s pursued donation for over two years. 

After we spoke, Jeremiah planned to attend a Big Ask Big Give seminar through the National Kidney Foundation. When I called him afterwards for a follow up conversation, Jeremiah picked up my call immediately, bursting with news! His cousin, Heather, had not given up, and was pre-approved through the Paired Exchange Program at the University of Minnesota Health Organ Transplant Care

Heather’s generosity will allow Jeremiah’s dream of receiving a kidney to come true.

Jeremiah rushed to tell his older son the life-changing news (initially prying him from a video game to get his attention). Gabriel’s face lit up, ecstatic that he was going to get his dad back. No video game can top that exhilaration! 

The remarkable Bartel family stays together through it all. Some of them share the Alport syndrome diagnosis—some of them save each other’s lives. Their solidarity prevails. Jeremiah’s grandmother, also on dialysis, purchased matching t-shirts featuring the words “Dialysis Strong”. Jeremiah is determined to help his family members navigate Alport syndrome, including three young nephews, two of whom are two-year-old twins). When a local news channel approached Jeremiah about a feature to share his story, he didn’t hesitate to suggest they feature his cousin Connor instead. (Connor received a living kidney donor a few months later and is doing well.) 

Jeremiah’s Uncle John received a kidney from his sister Diane. Jeremiah’s cousin Troy received a kidney from his uncle Brad. And now Jeremiah will receive a monumental gift from his cousin Heather. 

Jeremiah’s good deeds, launching a successful fundraiser to benefit the kidney community and selflessly putting his cousin’s needs above his own, have circled back. How lovely that he will soon receive the same kindness that he has put into the world.