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Illinois Strangers Come Together Over Life-Saving Sacrifice

Stewart Bodford (L) & his donor, Justin Maduena

During a time contentious rhetoric abounds and many people say they have fears about the worst of humanity, here's a story about a man making a life-saving sacrifice for another - someone he didn't even know:

Before he knew that a stranger had come forward willing to donate him a kidney, 55 year old Stewart Botsford from Arlington Heights wasn't feeling well. After all, he had long been struggling with health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure. "I was in pretty sad shape, you don't realize how sick you are until before and after ... Sure dialysis gives you life, but it also drains you too."

He's feeling much better today, thanks to Springfield man, Justin Maduena. The two are at his welcome back party at work, Justin is a utility worker for Ameren. So, how did he end up donating one of his organs to a man he didn't know from a Chicago suburb - hundreds of miles away?

Well as Stewart mentioned, his health was deteriorating and he was having a hard time finding a match amongst friends and family - in desperation, his family got creative. His wife Laura: "I looked for a billboard, no one would call me back on that. I did yard signs..." Laura even pleaded for a kidney on a radio station. She says it resulted in several people coming forward - unfortunately though, none were good matches for her husband.

"What is frustrating to a lot of people, including myself ... is that we are all born with two kidneys, we only need one - and so living donation is really a way to get that waiting list down." - Anne Black, CEO of the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois

Then, she had an idea to get a decal made for family members' cars. One read "Dad Needs Kidney" with Stewart's blood-type and a phone number. Someone took a picture and posted it to social media. "When I had the car done that's when it really moved fast, it went viral," says Laura. And that's how it made its way to Justin in Springfield. "My wife saw the picture, sent it to me ... I stopped what I was doing, read it. And I don't know why but I called the number right away and Stewart answered the phone."

Anne Black is the CEO of the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois. She says generally, people on a waiting list for a kidney in the state can expect five to seven years before one is received from a deceased donor. "It's a long wait, and I think that what is frustrating to a lot of people, including myself ... is that we are all born with two kidneys, we only need one - and so living donation is really a way to get that waiting list down," says Black.

Since the wait for an organ from someone who has passed on is not always a sure bet, since some patients unfortunately don't have several years to spare, patients are encouraged to seek donations from people close to them. As for getting one from a living stranger, Black says it's, "Much more rare than (getting one from) a family member or a friend."

Black says there are other alternatives for those who can't find a match amongst loved ones: "A family member gets tested and they're not a match for the person who needs the kidney, but they become part of a paired exchange." And then of course there are more unique solutions, like the one that ultimately worked out for Stewart Botsford. Justin Maduena says before seeing the picture on Facebook, he had never considered donation before, "That was the first time, just seeing that picture my wife sent me, it just took me over and I knew it was something I needed to do."

Kidney donation comes with risk, as does any surgery. Less than 1% of donors die due to the surgery. Meanwhile, it's not certain the transplanted kidney will perform as desired, those who receive one take anti-rejection medications for life.

But in this story, both men say they're feeling great. Justin says he hopes this experience can inspire others willing to make a potentially life-saving sacrifice. He says minus a few days of discomfort and recovery - it just wasn't that big of a deal. "It was something I would do all over again. I wish I had six kidneys so I could do this four more times. It's really something that is simple, yes there are complications that can arise - but that's a risk of life, and it's well worth the benefits at the end ... I guess the biggest thing I could say to anyone out there is, 'If you could help someone, why don't you?'" And as Justin and Stewart can attest, an added bonus is, it can make friends out of strangers.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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