Michael Miller was stuck in traffic in Temecula, California, one evening when he noticed a homemade sign posted on the back of the car in front of him.
It read: "Need a kidney donor for my Mom. Type A," and included a phone number.
He took a photo of the message and posted it on his Facebook page.
"That night, I happened to open up Facebook, and it was the first thing I saw," says Christine Massa, a friend of Miller. She fired off a text to the phone number, which belonged to the sister of the woman needing a kidney, saying she had blood type A and was interested in donating. "What do I do?" Massa queried.
The first thing they did was get together for coffee the next day. Massa learned that the woman in need was a Temecula mom in her early 60s who had been on dialysis for a year.
The woman's sister, Lourdes Browning, put Massa in contact with the Loma Linda University Transplant Institute, and she made arrangements to start the testing process.
Massa had been inspired by Mark Neville, executive director of the San Diego Bowl Game Association, who, in 2018, donated a kidney to a young woman who once was his family's babysitter.
Neville was a college roommate of Massa's husband, Steve, and a longtime friend of the family.
"I talked to Mark when he did his donation, and I felt if I was presented with an opportunity I would do it, too," Massa says.
When she spotted the Facebook post, she considered it a sign that this was her time.
"It didn't matter who it was," she said of the kidney recipient. "Someone needed help, and I wanted to help." She added that anyone with a daughter who cared enough about her to drive around with a sign on the back of her car must surely be loved.
The recipient, Lyn Ubaldo, explained that her sister had suggested the car sign idea when Ubaldo was faced with a 10-to-12-year wait on the kidney transplant list.
In addition to Ubaldo's daughter, Aria — at the time a student at Cal State San Marcos — a sister in Poway and a niece in Orange County also taped donor pleas to their vehicles.
Browning says a news story gave her the idea for the signs. She headed to Staples and had the signs printed, using her phone number as the contact. Six or seven responses came in over the next three to four months, Browning reports. Massa's was the first, and the others became back-up offers.
"We are so thankful to Christine," Browning says, noting that her family members either were not matches or had health conditions that precluded them from donating.
Ubaldo had been going to a dialysis center three days a week but, after getting an infection, opted for peritoneal dialysis — a 10-hour daily treatment she could do at home.
"My sister had only 3% function of her kidneys," says Browning. "What Christine did was give her a gift of life. We are very, very appreciative."
A month after seeing the Facebook photo, Massa started compatibility testing at the Loma Linda University Medical Center. It was a drawn-out process but she eventually got the news on Feb. 11, 2020, that she was a donor match. A transplant date was set for last April.
As the date approached, however, Ubaldo had a health setback, so the transplant was postponed. It wasn't until September, five months later, that it could be re-scheduled.
Massa, a full-time working mother of three teenagers, reported to the hospital on Oct. 26 with two kidneys and walked out the next day with one.
Massa's surgeon, Dr. Minh-Tri Nguyen, explains that the procedure is now performed via minimally invasive surgery that leaves only small scars. and most living donors stay in the hospital only one to two days.
"There are currently 18,554 waitlist candidates for a kidney transplant in California," he says. The United Network for Organ Sharing database shows that, in 2020, there were 542 living donor and 1,172 deceased donor kidney transplants in California.
"Living kidney donation generally offers better long-term graft survival," Nguyen says. "There is a large mismatch between available deceased donor organs and waitlist candidates."
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Massa was allowed to spend only a brief time with the recipient while in the hospital. "I was able to visit her and say goodbye. I sat with her a little while that morning," she says.
Since then they have kept in touch, exchanging emails about once a month.
"I'm healthy and back to where I was before the transplant," Massa reports, explaining she has made minor changes in her diet but is working fulltime and doing her regular exercise routine.
Ubaldo has been having some difficulty with side effects from her anti-rejection drugs, which need to be taken for life, but is hopeful the dosage eventually can be reduced.
The two Temecula moms plan to meet soon to celebrate a special date. Their six-month anniversary is this week. They also learned they share another special date. Massa's wedding anniversary falls on Ubaldo's birthday.
Ubaldo unwittingly has given a gift to another kidney disease patient. A second volunteer, who went through tests to be a back-up donor, has agreed to be available as a living donor if another wait-list patient is a match.