Kidney donation ‘a gift from one grandparent to another’

Bethany and Robin Krom, left, and John and Karen Nick connecting after John's transplant.
Bethany and Robin Krom, left, and John and Karen Nick connecting after John's transplant.

In the 1990s, Bethany Krom and Karen Nick both worked at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. When Bethany moved to Minnesota, the two kept in touch via Facebook. Twenty years later, that Facebook friendship would lead Bethany to give a lifechanging gift to Karen's husband, John.

Bethany Krom had never met John Nick. But she knew his story. In fact, although he was not yet aware, she was hoping to donate one of her kidneys to him. So when she heard his name called for an appointment from the same waiting room she was in at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, she took it as a sign.

"How could that not be a signal that this was all meant to be?" says Bethany, a longtime Mayo Clinic staff member.

Bethany introduced herself to John, the husband of a former colleague. It was the beginning of a relationship that would change both of their lives.

A long road to transplant

John began having kidney trouble almost 10 years ago. He had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, and chemotherapy and some post-operative complications damaged his kidneys.

"A few months after cancer surgery, I became septic, developed blood clots throughout my body, and my kidney function significantly declined," John says. "I was hospitalized for four weeks. I was pretty sick."

A team of physicians worked together to come up with a treatment plan. John was prescribed dialysis, IV antibiotics and aggressive treatment for the blood clots. Eventually, his kidney function improved, and he was able to stop dialysis. But his kidney function gradually deteriorated, and doctors told John he'd need a transplant someday.

By 2020, that day had come. Doctors had recommended John try to find a living donor, since living-donor kidney transplants usually have better short- and long-term outcomes than deceased-donor transplants. A family member and several friends were tested but deemed medically unable to donate.

A Facebook connection

That's when John's wife, Karen, took to Facebook for help. One of her posts reached Bethany, who had gotten to know Karen when both worked at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

"I decided to get tested to see if I could be a donor," Bethany says. "I told Karen if it was something that I could do, I would." After several days of testing — including the day she met John — Bethany received the news that she qualified as a donor.

"The day I was approved, I was walking on the Mayo campus," Bethany says. "I turned around and there was a full rainbow over Mayo. Another sign that this was meant to be."

While Bethany had been approved to donate a kidney, she wasn't a good direct match for John. But through paired donation, she was able to donate a kidney to someone else on his behalf. John would in turn receive a compatible kidney from a donor like Bethany.

John and Ford Nick
John Nick and his grandson Ford.

Bethany and John were placed on the National Kidney Registry, which matches donors and recipients. The very next day, a compatible donor was identified for John, and a compatible recipient was identified for Bethany. The two were scheduled for surgery in September 2021, one day — and 1,500 miles — apart. (While John had surgery at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, Bethany's surgery took place at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where she spends part of the year.)

"One of the highlights of my experience was meeting a woman from LifeSource who would be personally transporting my kidney to New York, where the recipient would be having surgery," Bethany says.

The next day, John received his new kidney — direct from California. Just a day after the transplant, his kidney function tests were already better than they'd been in 10 years. John could feel the difference.

"I felt like my head was clear," he says. "I just felt better overall."

Moving forward

John is looking forward to feeling even better in the months ahead. He's eager to get back to exercising and traveling. And to keeping up with his grandchildren.

"We have 16 grandchildren and another one on the way," he says.

Bethany — who refers to the donation as "a gift from one grandparent to another" — is also recovering well. She's resumed exercising and plans to participate in the 2022 Transplant Games of America next summer on Team MN-DAK.

Her biggest fan will be cheering her on from Arizona.

"I still can hardly believe that there was someone like Bethany out there with such a giving heart," John says. "I'll be forever grateful to her. I'm also very thankful for those others who stepped up to be evaluated as a donor for me."

For Bethany, donating a kidney was a way to live out her desire to be a force for good in the world. "I've always tried to do things that I felt could make a difference," she says.

The experience has also turned her into an advocate for organ donation. "You don't need two kidneys," she says. "I hope to inspire others to consider sharing their spare."