A grand gift: ‘extra years’

Cyrus farmer donated kidney, became part of ‘chain of hope’ through transplant program

BY FAITH ANDERSON


Jere Solvie’s driver’s license lists him as an organ donor upon his death. But the Cyrus, Minn., man had never given any thought to being a living donor. Last summer, that all changed.


“I was sitting in my chair like I always do, reading a devotion that said ‘everything we have is a gift from the Lord,’” Jere said with a smile. “Then it occurred to me, that meant body parts too!”

Jere Solvie, right, and his ‘cousin-in-law,’ Lu, joined a University of Minnesota program known as the “paired kidney exchange” to help Lu find a matching donor. Even though the two men weren’t a match, Jere was found to be the perfect match for a total stranger. The program also allowed Lu to be matched with someone else who joined the exchange as a donor. Photo by Faith Anderson

During that same time period, Jere had been thinking a lot about his cousin, Cindy, and her husband, Lu, from Burnsville. Lu’s kidneys were failing, and it appeared that dialysis would be imminent.


“My wife and I hoped and prayed that Lu could get better so that he and Cindy could enjoy their grandkids like we do,” said Jere. It wasn’t long before the Solvies were informed that Lu’s numbers were dropping. His health was declining.


Jere and his wife, Paulette, had a heart-to-heart conversation about the possibility of Jere donating a kidney to Lu. Then in a phone call, Jere told Lu, “I want to give you one of my kidneys.” Lu and Cindy were surprised and overjoyed with the possibility of such a life-saving gift.


That phone call put everything in motion. Unfortunately, after just a few tests, the two men were found to have different blood types, and therefore, were not a match.


But the story didn’t end there.


Lu shared with Jere some information about a unique program called the paired kidney exchange that the two of them could join. Managed through the University of Minnesota, the program could make it easier for Lu to get the help he needed to find a matching donor, and Jere would have the opportunity to follow through with his desire to prolong another life.


When incompatible blood types or other mismatches prevent a willing donor from giving a kidney to a family member or friend, this program allows the donor to help someone else by being matched with a recipient needing a transplant. At the same time, a chain reaction takes place. The relative or friend is also matched with someone who has entered into the program as a willing donor. The University manages the program to bring people together in an exchange network to save more lives.

After donating his kidney to a total stranger, Jere Solvie left the University Hospital in February wearing a t-shirt that promoted the kidney exchange program.

According to information from the University, Minnesota’s paired kidney exchange program began in 2009. Ty Dunn, a transplant surgeon and the surgical director for the University’s Living Donor Program, put it this way, “The paired exchange program increases the possibility that a person can find a match for a living donor kidney transplant. It offers the best long-term outcome for patients, and gives them the chance to get off dialysis sooner.”


“When I heard about the program, it was like hitting a grand slam!” Jere exclaimed. The information reinforced his commitment, and gave him new hope for Lu. “I’ve heard that 80 percent of the kidney transplants that take place in this country use paired exchange programs,” explained Jere.


Similar programs exist across the nation and are coordinated by the National Kidney Registry, giving people in need of a kidney transplant more options. A living donation is generally preferable to donations from deceased donors because of the health of the organ.


Jere and Paulette talked to their daughter, Shannon, who’s a nurse, and their son, Chad, who is also in the medical field. “Both of them encouraged and supported me in the decision,” said Jere.


So, the two men contacted the University and joined the growing chain of donors and recipients. Then, the vetting process began. Jere was sent surveys and videos and learned all he could about the process. He learned about kidneys and how they perform a vital task in removing wastes, extra fluid, and acid from our bodies. Part of the vetting process included interviews with surgeons and other medical personnel, including psychologists. “One surgeon told me that I’d be doing something I didn’t have to do, and that I would be thoroughly and completely examined and tested,” said Jere. “But I chose to continue the journey.”


Some of the first lab tests were performed in Morris, just 10 minutes from their farm home near Cyrus. In June of 2021, Jere and Paulette traveled to the University’s Fairview Hospital for further testing, which started at 7 a.m. and continued until almost 3 p.m.. “They took 16 vials of blood from me that day,” Jere recalled. But the bright spot in their day was a surprise visit from Lu and Cindy, who dropped by to show appreciation and offer encouragement to them.


When the results came back, Jere received a call from his case coordinator who explained that there were five issues that needed to be further addressed. There appeared to be a spot on one of his lungs, and his PSI numbers were elevated, indicating possible presence of cancer cells. Tests also showed a trace of blood in his urine, which could signal several problems. These and other issues meant more in-depth tests were needed to investigate those concerns.


For over six months, Jere saw an array of other professionals. By this time, it was January of 2022, and Jere felt like they had performed every medical test known to mankind. “Paulette was such an encouragement to me whenever I’d get a bit down,” Jere said. “She urged me to listen to the Lord.”

Paulette & Jere Solvie look back on their journey and see a perfectly orchestrated chain of events through a kidney donation program. Here they are pictured at home with their puppy Abby. Photo by Faith Anderson

Paulette added, “I just knew that God wouldn’t put him through all this for nothing. I was sure He would start opening doors…and He did.”


As the results from the second round of tests came in, one-by-one each of the five issues came back clear. “That was a God thing,” Jere stated.


By the end of January, Jere’s case coordinator called to tell him that there was a possibility his name might come up as a donor. Their optimism was once again renewed. As a farmer, Jere was so hoping that the match and the surgery could take place early enough to allow him to recover and be able to complete his spring planting back home.


During this time, Paulette had been reading a book called Circle Maker, a New York Times bestseller. The book shares guidance through persistence and focus within one’s prayer life. Paulette was so inspired that she decided to use a technique from the book. She began walking around Jere, praying aloud for answers in their journey. As praying people, the Solvies trusted that answers would be revealed at some point.


Three hours later the coordinator called. “Jere, you’ve been cleared as a donor,” she said.


“God made that happen,” said Jere with absolute certainty. “It was the answer to our prayers.”


Five days later, Jere was told that he was a perfect match for a 65-year-old male, and was given a choice of dates within a two- or three-week window. Jere chose the week of Feb. 13 because he knew that if all went well, he could attend his granddaughter’s basketball game that Saturday in Becker on the way home. On Valentine’s Day, Jere checked into Fairview’s seventh floor, the University’s transplant center. The procedure was scheduled for three days later, but final tests were performed, and every detail was precisely analyzed in readiness for the important procedure.


The day came, and Jere underwent the surgery in one of the hospital’s 18 operating suites in which 200 transplants take place each year. After four hours, the removal of his kidney was successful, and it was whisked away to be given to someone who had been waiting for this life-changing gift.


Later, Jere met with his surgeon who was pleased with how healthy his kidney was and how well things had gone. He explained that Jere had given the recipient another 20+ years of life. The surgeon showed Jere a photograph of the kidney. “I expected to see something that looked like a big kidney bean,” said Jere. “But when I looked at that picture, I wondered if he had taken out the wrong thing!” The surgeon also told him that once a healthy kidney is completely ‘plumbed’ into the recipient, it can start processing within one minute.

Jere Solvie donated a kidney in February, and was pleased to be able to do his spring planting and chores on the family farm just months later. Photo by Faith Anderson

Two days after surgery, Jere was feeling well and was discharged, just in time to travel to Becker to watch the basketball game. But before he left the hospital, he wrote a note to the recipient on a handmade greeting card that Paulette had created. “I told him in my note that I was a farmer, and that I hoped this kidney would help him feel better,” Jere remembered. “I also told him that we’d love to meet some day, but that would be up to him.” The note was given to the coordinator to pass along when and if the time was right. Jere understood that above all, the identities of the donor and the recipient are kept confidential until such time as the recipient requests information and the donor is willing to have those details shared.


During halftime of the basketball game, a man named George came up to Jere and introduced himself. George saw that Jere was wearing a t-shirt that promoted the idea of being a kidney donor and decided to ask about it. As the two visited, George mentioned that a friend from his church had recently undergone a transplant. George and Jere chatted about the unique donor program, and how successful it had become. “He said he was thankful for people like me who donate through the program,” remembered Jere, “and asked to take a picture with me just for fun.” The two took a selfie, and continued to talk about kidneys and basketball.


George ended up sending the photo to his friend, David Riley, who was still recovering from his transplant. With that, all the pieces of the story began to fall into place. George knew that Jere had given his kidney to a 65-year-old male. David was 65 years old. Jere’s surgery took place on the same day as David’s and at the same hospital. Could it be that Jere was David’s donor? Was it possible that Jere’s kidney was rushed to another operating room just steps away? Those questions and others entered their minds, but there was no way to prove or disprove the theory.


Not long later, Jere’s coordinator called and confirmed the fact that Jere’s kidney was transplanted into David. She told Jere she had never had a donor and the recipient find each other on their own, but she added that she’d never had a donor go to a basketball game the same day he was discharged from the hospital.


“That was another God thing!” Jere exclaimed.


Before too long, Jere received an e-mail from David, the recipient of his kidney. Jere responded, and a new bond was formed. David shared some of his history, including the fact that he was adopted and didn’t know any of his biological relatives. Because of that, David had fully expected that he might eventually be fortunate enough to be paired with a kidney from a deceased donor. Between February 2021 and February 2022, he received five calls regarding potential matches from deceased donors. Each turned out to be false alarms for one reason or another. After the last call, David was at the hospital getting prepped for the transplant when he heard the disappointing news that the kidney wasn’t healthy enough to be used.


“I kept my faith,” said David, “and was blessed to be on many prayer chains.” During that time, David kept dialysis at bay by being as active as he could, swimming and going out cross-country skiing.


Finally, during the week of Feb. 13, David was told that they had found an anonymous living donor who was a perfect match. He tried to keep his enthusiasm in check, and before he knew it, on Feb. 17, 2022, after a four-hour surgery, he had a new, healthy kidney.


David is still in awe of the sacrifices that both Jere and Paulette have made on his behalf. “What a miraculous event!” David shared. “I now have a biological kidney brother. The Solvies have been a blessing in many ways -- I could write a book!”


Within hours of surgery, David felt a return of his energy and a lifting of the fog he had been experiencing. “With kidney disease, toxins build up and brain fog sneaks up on you -- you are mentally fatigued and lack concentration,” said David. “Mentally, I felt sharper within the first couple of hours after surgery.”


A week after his transplant, David started riding a stationary bike. Six weeks after surgery, he began swimming. It’s not uncommon for minor complications to occur after a kidney transplant, and David has experienced some of those speed bumps, as he calls them. Despite those difficulties, he feels so much better than pre-transplant.


David continues his work as a Certified Public Accountant for a firm in the metro area, and often thinks of the miracle he has witnessed first-hand. “The event has had a profound effect on me philosophically,” David stated. “One of the most important lessons that I am wrapping my arms around is the scriptural concept of servant-leadership. Jere’s selfless kidney donation is a good example of servant leadership, and made an earthly difference. With my ‘extra years,’ I hope to make a difference according to my abilities and talents.”


Jere and David have yet to meet in person, but they normally talk every week and have formed a solid friendship. During their conversations, the two have found many common interests. Both are men of faith and often speak of it with each other. Both enjoy music. Jere enjoys singing in the choir, and occasionally sings solos at his church in Cyrus. David likes jazz music, plays trombone, and has enjoyed time in a semi-professional band, performing at conferences and even on cruise ships. Jere serves as a part-time funeral assistant for a local funeral home, and David worked in a consulting capacity for several funeral homes. As a farmer, Jere has a love for the land. David is a pilot and enjoys the view of rolling hills and plains of Minnesota from 10,000 feet. One day, David hopes to take Jere up in his plane so they can fly over the Solvie farm.


Another link in the chain

Lu is the other link in this lifesaving paired kidney exchange chain. As he prepared to receive a kidney, he also needed to go through a battery of tests to substantiate his health and to help find his match. But Lu ran into a major roadblock. After one particular heart test, he was found to have a 99 percent blockage in a key artery, a situation that often times can be deadly. A procedure was ordered immediately to clear that blockage. Lu’s life was saved by this procedure, but it put his potential transplant on hold for six months.


“We learned of another miracle,” said Jere. “The doctor told Lu that his recuperation had gone so well that his availability for a transplant was moved up to 30 days.”


On May 24, Lu got the call. A 67-year-old donor had been found to be the perfect match, and surgery is scheduled for this summer.


“Looking back, it’s been just amazing to see how God orchestrated every single chapter of this story,” said Paulette. “He guided the chain of events in His perfect way.”


And the chain continues to grow.

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