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Bill Kimler didn’t know he had an aunt named Karen Atwood. He didn’t know she was in desperate need of a kidney. He certainly had no idea he’d be the one to come to her aid by donating one of his organs.
“It’s weird,” said Bill, a Greenwood resident. “I did not have a single piece of rationale for doing this. It was more mathematical in my mind. The equation was a couple of weeks of inconvenience for me — and lifesaving for her.”
It was during a trip to Albany, New York in January 2021 that Bill first learned he had an aunt — and that she needed a kidney. Bill picked up his mother, Christine, in New Jersey for a road trip to Albany to celebrate the college graduations of his son and daughter. It was during this trip that Christine, a doctor of osteopathy, broke the news to Bill.
“In the middle of the drive, she just brought it up,” Bill said. “She said, ‘Hey, you know my cousin Karen?’ I knew of her. I’d never met her. She was just a relative I’d never met. She said, ‘Well, you know, she’s actually my sister.”
Karen was born out of wedlock to Bill’s grandmother in the 1950s and was adopted by her brother’s family. They raised Karen as their own biological child.
Karen’s adoptive father later died, and her adoptive mother had Alzheimer’s.
“In one of her Alzheimer’s states, she let loose that she (Karen) was adopted, and wouldn’t go into any more details,” Bill said. “This was a recent revelation just for her, that her entire life was not what she thought it was.”
The same year, she found out about her family, in 2020, she also discovered she had end-stage renal failure. She had already submitted her DNA to 23andMe and found a match, which was Bill’s sister, Melissa.
Karen reached out to Melissa via email and told her they had DNA connections. Karen’s DNA didn’t match her adoptive parents. Christine then shared with Karen the full story of her birth and adoption.
After Bill found out about Karen on the trip, Christine then shared even more news about Karen.
“My mother, being a doctor, knows her kids’ blood types, and I was the only one who happened to have a matching blood type to Karen,” Bill said.
Christine told him about Karen’s condition and that she was looking for a kidney.
“My mom, just very medically, started talking about the facts about kidney donation,” Bill said. “She said, ‘I just want you to consider it. There is no pressure. I’m not going to hound you about it.’ She has all these ethics she subscribes to as a medical doctor.”
Bill said he didn’t think much about it the rest of the trip. Meanwhile, Karen was struggling.
“Karen, as you can imagine, was very depressed,” Bill said. “Her mother had just died. She just learned she was experiencing renal failure. She has learned her life was a lie. She was just down.”
Karen said she decided, when she found out about the renal failure around Thanksgiving 2020, that she was ready for her life to end. She didn’t want to do dialysis and fought off daily calls from her nephrologist to treat her.
“I was in the hospital, and they said you need dialysis,” Karen said in a Zoom call with Bill following the transplant. “I had been a critical care nurse and a heart transplant nurse, and I said no. First of all, I refused for almost two weeks. My nephrologist called me every day and I would say no. Every day, he would call me.
“We had friends who were going to get a kitten. I wanted to go and pet a kitten before I died. I had already gone and redone my will. I was so sick and felt so bad that I was ready (to die). I had been sick for quite a while. I was bedridden. This tells you how the toxins kind of played with my head. I basically feel like I had the mentality of a 5-year-old at that point.”
But Karen eventually decided to have dialysis. She had a friend who offered a kidney and was going through the transplant process. But then, a couple of weeks later, Bill found out that this friend was written off the list because of medical issues of her own, and she also got COVID.
“She was in no condition to survive a kidney transplant,” Bill said of Karen’s friend. “That’s when I started looking into it. I read the stats, looked at the websites, saw that the risks were very low and that the recovery is pretty quick. It was within the next two months that I started doing some deep dives into the subject to really consider it.”
In March 2021, he spoke with a friend, Matthew Miller, who had just one kidney. Miller told Bill he had no limitations, no pain and no tiredness. Bill had not even spoken to Karen — and wouldn’t until nearly a month after surgery on a Feb. 3 Zoom call.
“That was by my choice, actually,” Bill said. “I did not want to complicate the whole situation because there are so many things that could’ve gone wrong at the end. I could have gotten COVID the day before and been ruled out.
“If I had to wait a couple of weeks, she wouldn’t be alive. A whole bunch of things could have gone wrong. I wanted to wait until a successful transplant and all was good, and then we could sit down and celebrate together.”
Bill went through a near-yearlong process of tests to ensure he could donate one of his kidneys. The Jan. 13 transplant came just in time for Karen.
“Three days before the surgery, they found out her dialysis was failing and that she had literally less than a week to live,” Bill said. “If we had scheduled that surgery a week later, or a month later, it wouldn’t have happened. That’s just the crazy coincidence of the timing.”
Dr. Muhammad Irfan Saeed removed the kidney at Augusta University Medical Center’s organ transplant center.
After four hours of surgery, a courier took the kidney to the Atlanta airport, where it was transported by commercial flight to Baltimore and then taken by courier to a Pennsylvania hospital, where Karen was waiting to have it implanted.
“Just to think, the next flight you are on, you could be traveling with somebody’s body part,” Bill said.
Both surgeries went well, with Bill missing just three days of work.
“There is nothing I could ever do to thank you,” Karen said in the Zoom call, which lasted about an hour and a half.
“It was very emotional, but the first thing I knew when I saw her was just how normal and not sick she looked,” Bill said of the call. “She told a story that she had really literally been bedridden for the past year. She had no energy and couldn’t do a thing and just felt miserable. Talking to her for an hour and a half, you wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. That’s how instantaneous this kidney worked for her.”
Bill said there is nothing particularly heroic about what he did. He said people have a chance every day to help others, whether it’s serving as a first responder or simply giving blood.
“I think that everybody, at some moment in their lives, has that same opportunity, and it comes in many different forms,” he said. “We all have opportunities to save lives. This is just how it presented itself to me.”
He said he read on a Reddit thread about a man who anonymously donated a kidney.
“That is a step above and beyond,” Bill said.
While Bill is almost back to normal, Karen is experiencing a new life after once nearly giving up on it.
“It’s the simple things you don’t think about — sitting on a sofa and being able to talk and not getting out of breath,” Karen said in the Zoom call. “Being able to shower … such a silly thing. It’s the little things. I haven’t been out of my bedroom for almost a year and a half. Now I can go to the kitchen and get myself something to eat or drink. I couldn’t even stand up to brush my own teeth.”