KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The idea kept nagging at Aimee Bultemeier.
“I have two perfectly good kidneys, and I only need one,” the 37-year-old St. Luke’s Hospital nursing assistant thought. “I could save somebody’s life.”
Here’s the thing: She had no idea who that “somebody” was.
It wasn’t a friend or family member. Just another human being who was waiting _ and likely praying _ for a chance at a new life.
For Bultemeier, that was enough. The Lee’s Summit, Mo., single mother of two called the Midwest Transplant Network in Westwood, Kan., and volunteered to have major surgery to save the life of a stranger.
She is one of a growing number of anonymous kidney donors nationwide. Such altruistic, nondirected organ donations have grown in recent years, experts say, thanks to the Internet, emotional videos on YouTube and the reach of social media.
In 2011, the latest year complete statistics are available, there were 159 anonymous kidney donors in the United States.
“This was unheard of until the late ‘90s,” said Anne Paschke, a spokeswoman for the United Network for Organ Sharing in Richmond, Va. “The first ones we recorded were in 1998. And if you go back a dozen years, there were only 30.”
The Midwest Transplant Network also has seen more interest in such donations.
“We’ve seen a steady increase in calls each year,” said Catherine Nash, the network’s family services coordinator. “We probably get 30 to 40 people a year calling with questions. Of those, about 20 follow through. Then, on average, two of those (donate).
“But 100 percent of our callers are coming from an altruistic standpoint. They want to help. They’ve seen the statistics about people dying waiting for a kidney.”
Nationally about 95,000 people – including more than 1,800 in Missouri and Kansas – are waiting for a kidney, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. On average, 13 a day die, according to the National Kidney Foundation. More than 400,000 people in the U.S. are on dialysis.
While people are born with two kidneys – organs that make urine and filter waste from the blood – they can function normally with just one.
“We think about greed and narcissism and all the shootings,” said Bruce Manley, a Northland psychologist. “But we forget that there is still a very large number of people who are doing good and decent things for other human beings. This is just an example of that. Then if we look at the role that social media plays, we can start to see why this is happening at this moment.”
Renee Dietchman, a Kansas City psychologist, has another theory.
“Typically when times are tough, such as in the Great Depression, people want to help,” she said. “If they can’t help financially, maybe they help out by giving more of themselves.”
Bultemeier works on the transplant floor at the Mid-America Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Hospital and is familiar with such cases.
“In 2010, I became close to two guys waiting for heart transplants,” she said. “They were both single parents and both close to my age. It just really touched me – more or less broke my heart. I mean, that could be any of us.
“I just couldn’t imagine being young and single and a parent and needing an organ to live, you know? And so pretty much that’s when it just was clear as day to me. ... I just believe that God put it on my heart to do this.”
Before making her final decision, she did a lot of praying and research. She told her mother, Kathy Hood.
Hood, of Lee’s Summit, Mo., worried. After all, Bultemeier’s former husband – the father of their daughter, Lexi – had died of a brain aneurysm.
“I worried that Aimee might be the only match for her if she ever needed (a kidney),” Hood said. “She said, ‘Mom, the chances of that happening are so slim, and I could help save a life now!’”
Besides, Hood realized there is no guarantee a parent will be a match for a child. A retired teacher, she knew a co-worker who waited years for a kidney match.
“I know what families go through waiting, and Aimee does, too,” Hood said. “She has come home sometimes in tears. She’s a very compassionate young woman, and I am incredibly proud of her for what she’s done.”
After Bultemeier contacted the Midwest Transplant Network in September 2010, it took nine months of interviews, medical tests, mental health screenings, background checks and in-person interviews to make sure she was a good candidate.
Nash said donors must not only undergo multiple screenings, they must realize that they’re purposely putting their body at risk to help another person.
Bultemeier passed on all counts.
“She is just so amazing and so positive,” Nash said. “Her wanting to donate reflects how she lives her life.”
Bultemeier said she wasn’t nervous.
“My only fear was that I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said. “You know, maybe when they were doing my EKG or my labs or a chest X-ray that they would find something wrong that would disqualify me.”
St. Luke’s gave her eight weeks of paid time off to donate and recover.
“My boss was amazing and supportive,” she said. “I wish more businesses would do that.”
A year and a half after donating, Bultemeier doesn’t know much about the person who received her kidney.
“A few months after I donated, about October of 2011, I received a card from my recipient,” she said. “It was very short and sweet. I know it’s a guy. He said he was eternally grateful and he is doing great and he hopes to meet me one day and get to know me.”
She wants to meet him and to hear his story. She imagines she might have helped save someone with a wife and children.
“It’s hard,” she said in a quavering voice. “I knew going in that I might never meet my recipient. And that’s OK.”
“I want to know if he is married and if he has kids or if he’s still doing well, you know?” she said. “How long was he waiting? How long was he on dialysis? And he’s a patient at St. Luke’s, so is it somebody I have taken care of or crossed paths with?”
She’s philosophical about it.
“If it’s meant to be, it will happen,” she said. “God placed (this recipient) in my life for a reason, and he’s in control. I feel like this journey is not over yet.”
In the meantime, she’s just happy she could help.
“I am hoping my story can inspire others to register and donate,” she said.
“That’s a hero,” Cox said. “If more people would be like her, the world would be a better place.”