| Kidney disease | Patient stories | Transplant

When Courage Meets Kindness

April 09, 2024, 1:17pm EDT


When Courage Meets Kindness

Jennifer Cramer-Miller

Marcia Ballinger, a leader in the Twin Cities executive search community, involves herself in an array of activities. Besides being a partner in Ballinger | Leafblad, she is an award-winning author, talented speaker, and serves on many boards. Her resume makes it clear—she donates her time to causes she cares about.

Recently, Marcia’s values prompted her to donate something far different from time or talent. She volunteered to save the life of her professional acquaintance by donating her kidney.

Marcia shares this story humbly, as if her kindness doesn’t deserve much fanfare. But it does, especially to Bernadeia Johnson.

Bernadeia served as the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools and became acquainted with Marcia at various community events. Connected on LinkedIn, one day Marcia read a post from Bernadeia explaining she was in renal failure and needed a kidney.

“I’m not very medical,” Marcia said. “I didn’t know much about kidneys. But I knew that post took courage.” Bernadeia’s brave words replayed in Marcia’s mind.

Soon after, Marcia attended a graduation party and mentioned Bernadeia’s situation to her cousin, a registered nurse. With a casual flair, Marcia’s cousin waved her hand and said, “Go be tested. You don’t need two kidneys!”

With that nudge of confidence from a trusted relative, Marcia pursued donor testing at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. After a full day of appointments and blood tube collections, Marcia learned she was not a match for Bernadeia.

But it didn’t end there. Because the transplant team asked Marcia if she would consider donating her kidney to a different person through an indirect donation. If Marcia would donate her kidney to a stranger on Bernadeia’s behalf, Bernadeia could eventually receive a kidney match from another donor.

Pleased that her efforts could still be helpful, Marcia quickly said, “Sure.”

This paired exchange program works like a kidney swap, and it’s a game changer for kidney patients who have a willing but incompatible donor. Marcia completed the required workup, and the living donor team deemed her a suitable donor.

Marcia’s surgery took place early on a Tuesday morning, and by 11:00 am, the Life Source team began transporting her gift to its recipient. By 3:00 that afternoon, Marcia, in recovery, grabbed her phone to check emails and discuss business with her work partner. She was home by 3:00 on Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s surgery and I have a little scar,” she explained. “But I think the speed at which you recover and can return to everyday things surprised me.” Her laparoscopic scar (that she describes as “little”) signifies a double act of kindness. Marcia’s indirect donation assures Bernadeia’s future transplant and directly saved an out-of-state man she doesn’t know.

Marcia’s actions are awe-inspiring. But she doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think my story is all that interesting, to be honest,” she said. She focuses more on Bernadeia’s actions than on her own. “She had the courage to ask for help.”

Marcia believes there is so much serendipity in how things unfolded. “This should be strong encouragement to all kidney sufferers to share your story in every way possible. You honor people with your vulnerability and invite them to join your journey with thoughts, prayers, and support. You never know who is going to see it.”

Now, these two leaders in the community are much more than professional acquaintances. “Of course, we’ve become close friends. It’s a gift being a part of her circle,” Marcia said. No doubt, Bernadeia treasures the gift of their friendship as well, and she will carry it forward with gratitude and good health.