Nicole Gaborek was working a late shift one night in July, scrolling through Facebook during a slow period, when she turned to her partner on the Lakemoor police force.
“I said, ‘Should I donate a kidney?’"
A Facebook friend had shared an article from Rockford radio station B-103 about a 31-year-old woman from Harvard, Ill., who was searching for a kidney donor. Gaborek has friends in Harvard. She also has type A blood — the same as the woman who needed a kidney. And an affinity for helping others, even if it means putting herself in harm’s way.
“My partner just kind of ignored me,” Gaborek, 27, said. “So I was like, ‘Yeah. I think I’m going to donate a kidney.’”
The 31-year-old Harvard woman who needed the kidney is Rachel Schultz. She’s an engineer at Baxter Healthcare and a former sonar technician for the U.S. Navy, where she served for six years before college.
In February 2016, Schultz was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s Disease, which damages the tiny filters inside the kidneys. She had no history of kidney disease in her family, so the diagnosis came as a shock. Her doctor told her she would need a kidney transplant within three to five years and placed her on a regiment of immunosuppressants, steroids and fish oil.
By February 2018, she was in kidney failure. She started dialysis treatments in July, first at a treatment center and, eventually, using home hemodialysis, where a machine would clear waste and extra fluid from her blood four nights per week.
“I would get up at 6, leave for work by 7, do my 8 hours-plus, come home, set up my machine — which takes about 45 minutes — and then hop on,” Schultz told me. “I’d get done around 10 and go to bed. On the nights I didn’t have dialysis, I’d come home from work, make dinner, go to bed.”
The treatments left her exhausted and sore. They left her mind too fuzzy to read, but she couldn’t sleep during dialysis either, because the machine required her to log her blood pressure, arterial pressure and other statistics every 30 minutes. Her roommate had to stay close by in case she passed out or something started to leak, putting her at risk of bleeding to death.
It was a grim existence for an adventure-seeker who had traveled to five continents before age 30.
The radio station plea was her Hail Mary.
“What I learned from pretty much everyone is you have to be your own advocate,” Schultz said. “You have to put yourself out there, even if that’s not comfortable. And it wasn’t comfortable for me, but I thought, ‘Well, I need a kidney.’ ”
She sent letters to nearby American Legions and VFW outposts. She made flyers with pull-off tabs and gave them to her friends and family to distribute wherever they shopped or dined or visited. She launched a website, rachelschultz.net/kidney. She wore a T-shirt to a Chicago Cubs game that read, “I need a kidney.”
“I would joke, ‘Hey, anybody going to a wedding? I could send a book for all the guests to sign and write down their blood type,’ ” she said.
“I was not optimistic,” she added.
Then Gaborek stumbled upon Schultz’s story from the B-103 site.
“It was so obvious to me, ‘Oh, she needs her life saved. I can fix that,’ ” Gaborek said. “My day-to-day makeup is having to think about risking my life to save someone else’s life. I think every police officer has that at their core.”
After a bunch of paperwork and a handful of medical screenings, Gaborek was cleared to donate her kidney to Schultz.
The donation and transplant took place on Dec. 4 at Rush University Medical Center. The two women met for the first time the next day. Gaborek shuffled into Schultz’s hospital room, both still clad in hospital gowns, and leaned in for a hug.
“I just kept going, ‘I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry,’” Schultz said.
“It’s weird. What do you say,” she said. “All I could say is, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
“I don’t have some great story,” she said. “It was just as easy as, ‘I know I can help her so I’m going to help her.’ ”
That’s a pretty great story, I told her.
The three of us — Gaborek, Schultz and I — were gathered in a little conference room at Rush last week, the day Gaborek and Schultz came to Rush for a post-surgery follow-up appointment. They let me sit in on their meeting, a lovely little moment between two humans who were, 10 days prior, strangers; who are, now, connected for life, by life — the life that Gaborek gifted Schultz.
Amanda Verhagen, Schultz’s best friend since they were 16, came to the appointment. She was also there for the surgery. She spent the morning of the transplant scanning the waiting room to figure out which family members belonged to the donor, the young mystery woman who decided to save her best friend’s life.
“By 7:30 in the morning I had already been a creeper and taken a snapshot of who I thought her family was,” Verhagen said. “You could just tell how much her family loved her.”
“My boyfriend texted me and was like, ‘I think I see them and I think they know we’re us,’ ” Gaborek said.
When Schultz’s transplant surgery was over and she appeared to be in the clear, her parents called her grandma, who has trouble hearing.
“Rachel’s dad is over there yelling, ‘RACHEL HAD HER SURGERY. RACHEL! HER SURGERY!,” Verhagen said. “Nicole’s dad heard the name Rachel and came over to Rachel’s dad and said, ‘I think my daughter just gave your daughter a kidney.’ I’m just sitting there trying not to bawl.”
Verhagen is clearly delighted to see her best friend’s life on a path back toward adventure and travel and joy.
Schultz, even a few days post-surgery, feels better than she’s felt in years.
Gaborek is steadfast in her humility.
“It was a no-brainer,” she said. “If I can save someone’s life, I’m going to do it. It was really that simple.”
The most beautiful things often are.