Gillette woman finds kidney donor

After years of suffering with kidney failure, Kathy Berman, left, will soon be receiving a new kidney from Michelle Butler, right. Butler is a friend of Berman's daughter and decided to get tested to see if she would be a compatible donor. Turns out she is. (Photo by August Frank, Gillette News Record)

By Patrick Filbin

Gillette News-Record

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — Kathy Berman cried for 20 minutes after seeing the text message.

It was a Thursday night and she was tired. These days, she’s always tired. She sleeps more than she’s awake. It’s what she’s been used to for more than two years now.

Exhausted, Berman was spending another night in when her daughter sent a text message with a photo.

It was a picture of a cake.

On the cake was a frosted kidney with three words: “Share da spare.”

How many people can say that they knew their life would be saved after seeing a photo of a cake?

“I instantly lost it,” Berman said. “I don’t know how long I cried for. I still cry every time I think about it.”

It has been a long road for Berman and her family.

Berman has suffered from kidney failure for years. The disease runs in the family. Berman’s mother and grandfather had to have kidney transplants.

Hailey Erickson, one of Berman’s four kids, said two of her aunts on her dad’s side have also needed kidney transplants.

The worst of Berman’s kidney troubles came less than three years ago when she was living in Florida.

She is from Gillette originally, so when the pain got to be too much and no one was around to take care of her, Erickson moved her mom back home.

Berman lived with Erickson, her husband Brody and their three kids after the move before finding her own apartment.

Throughout her health complications, Berman had so many surgeries — most of them in Gillette — that she has lost count.

Berman tried to put off taking dialysis as long as she could but due to her kidney failure her body started to shut down.

Dialysis is a treatment for kidney failure that removes unwanted toxins from the body that a healthy kidney would otherwise deal with by filtering the blood. Dialysis patients must sit in a chair with tubes flowing from them for hours on end multiple times a week.

Berman has to go to dialysis three days a week for four hours a day. It takes a lot out of her, as it does anyone who goes through it.

During dialysis, Berman had three fistula surgeries — or hemodialysis procedures — that connected an artery and vein to a failing kidney in an attempt to revive it.

All of those surgeries proved unsuccessful.

In August, Berman had three surgeries in 16 days to deal with blood clots.

As she was going through the difficulties that come with kidney failure, Berman’s name sat near the bottom of the very long kidney transplant donor list.

A recent editorial in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology estimated that of 126,000 people diagnosed annually with end-stage renal disease, only 20,000 will eventually receive a donated kidney.

That number is even smaller for people who will receive an organ from a live donor rather than a cadaver.

“The average wait for a kidney transplant is five years,” Erickson said.

Berman and the rest of the family figured they were halfway through the waiting period this winter when a family friend stepped up and offered the gift of a lifetime.

Erickson first met Michelle Butler when Butler’s husband coached the T-ball team their kids were on.

“We became instant friends,” Erickson said. “As soon as we met them we knew they were our kind of people.”

It helped that both of Butler’s kids were the same age as two of Erickson’s. The families spent a weekend camping in the Big Horn Mountains.

“Ever since then it’s been a different kind of bond than I have had with almost anyone else,” Erickson said.

Butler said she felt that instant connection too. She said it’s rare when people come into your life, especially at this stage with her own family, to connect with someone on such a deep level.

One night over dinner at the Butler house, Erickson talked about her mom and how hard of a time she was having. She had just returned from rapid City after taking Berman to the emergency room.

“I knew Kathy and that she had been going through kidney failure but didn’t know the impact it was having on her life,” Butler said. “Hailey was really upset about it, talking about the transplant and the donor list. It tore at my heartstrings.”

Erickson had tried to get tested to see if she could donate a kidney to her mom, but because of her family’s history with kidney failure, doctors wouldn’t go near her.

“They wouldn’t even draw my blood,” Erickson said. “I tried twice. They shut me down right away.”

When Butler heard about what Berman was going through and how tough it was for Erickson, there was something emotionally familiar about it.

Butler was 20 years old when her dad died. As she listened to one of her best friends talk about what it might be like losing their mom, Butler couldn’t help but think of her own story, how hard it was to say goodbye to her dad.

“I didn’t want Hailey to not have a mom and her kids to not have a grandma,” Butler said.

After that dinner, without much hesitation or any prompting by Erickson, Butler immediately began looking into how to become a live donor.

Butler is a Type O-negative blood donor, the universal blood type and the rarest. Only 6.6 percent of the world’s population has O-negative blood and because of that, Butler has always been passionate about regularly donating.

About a month later, Butler traveled to Denver with her husband and spent two days going through rigorous testing to see if she would be a perfect match to donate a kidney to Berman.

Berman knows how tedious and draining those two days can be. She did the same thing for her mother but unfortunately wasn’t a match.

Being a perfect match even with your most immediate family is rare. Being a perfect match to a stranger without any relation is extremely rare.

After two days of testing the results came back.

Then Butler ordered the cake.

Gift of a lifetime

Erickson knew that when she sent the photo to her mom that she needed to give her some time before calling.

“When I called 20 minutes later she was still crying,” she said.

As soon as Berman saw the cake she knew it was a reality: Butler, out of the kindness of her heart, had decided to donate a kidney.

Berman knew that Butler was looking into getting tested but she had no idea that her daughter’s best friend was seriously considering donating a kidney.

Looking back on it, Berman said she is glad that Butler did most of the testing and inquiring behind the scenes. She didn’t want to get her hopes up for anything.

“When you’re so sick and in the hospital as many times as I was, you look for any gleam of hope,” she said.

Butler had decided to give Berman more than hope. She was giving her life.

“I think at first I was a little naive about it,” Butler said. “I didn’t have any hesitation about it, but then I realized it is a bigger deal than I thought.”

“There are not many people like her,” Berman said. “I see her and I still cry.”

Berman and Butler’s surgery is scheduled for Feb. 25. Butler will have to stay in the hospital for a couple of days before being able to come home to Gillette.

Berman is set to spend a month in the Denver area while she recovers.

Looking back on the last two and a half years, Berman said she knows she would not be where she is in such great spirits without the support from her family.

“They have meant everything to me through all of this,” she said. “The support they have given me has been absolutely amazing.”

For Erickson, Butler’s choice was just the icing on the cake.

“I don’t know anyone else as special as her before this,” she said. “I couldn’t thank her enough to be my friend, let alone do this.”

Erickson always talks about how nonchalant Butler is about her incredible sacrifice.

“I always tell her she acts like it’s just another day for her (but) she’s literally changing our family’s life,” she said. “It’s hard being a kid taking care of your sick parent so she’s giving all of us, my kids most importantly, something they wouldn’t have had.”

Butler said her own mom was the first person she thought of when she decided to give one of her kidney’s to Berman.

“If it was my mom I would want someone to do this for her,” Butler said.

Luckily for Berman, she has found her someone.