From 1,500 miles away Betsy Rodiles saved Kevin Pierce’s life. Even though they grew up just 16 miles apart, they never met.
Yet Rodiles gave Pierce, now of Mandan, the gift of one of her kidneys.
Pierce, 41, had a fairly normal childhood growing up in Carrington.
It wasn’t until his college years that he was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, a kidney disease that results from the build-up of protein deposits within the kidney.
These deposits of the protein immunoglobulin (IgA) prevent the kidney’s proper filtering of waste and excess water from the blood.
“I grew up like an average kid. I played sports and did all the fun stuff that a guy got to do,” Pierce said.
Pierce even went to the occasional movie just north of Carrington, in New Rockford, where Rodiles was raised.
In New Rockford, Rodiles, the daughter of Miran and Maryanne Birkeland, grew up as kind of a tomboy, according to her sister Anne Guler.
“She used to ride her bike everywhere. She loved basketball and track,” Guler said.
When Rodiles was 17, she had the chance to move to Phoenix and went for it.
In 1988, Pierce had his first kidney transplant. The organ came from his brother and although it was a healthy kidney, doctors overlooked a genetic blood clotting disorder. The transplant lasted only 11 days.
The next transplant kidney, taken from Pierce’s father, was much more successful.
“I only had one rejection, a small rejection throughout the 18 years,” Pierce said.
In Arizona, Rodiles graduated from Arizona State University, married Jose Rodiles and had a daughter, Gabriella Rodiles.
She enjoyed a very active lifestyle.
“She lived working out here at the YMCA,” Guler said. “They renamed a race after her.”
Normal life went on for Pierce and Rodiles during the 18 years he had his father’s kidney. Pierce moved to Mandan to take a job at the youth correctional center.
In December of 2007, things took a turn for the worst. The IgA nephropathy had slowly reduced Pierce’s kidney function to 15 percent to 16 percent.
“I started feeling kind of not up to par, tired easily, wore out easy,” Pierce said. “They started getting me ready, they put in fistulas so I could get ready for dialysis because they didn’t know exactly when I’d ever get another kidney.”
A fistula is a small tube that is implanted between an artery and a vein to create an access point for kidney dialysis.
Pierce’s name was added to the nearly 100,000 others on the waiting list for a transplant.
“It was tough; I was concerned about what was really going to happen,” Pierce said. “I must have had like 10 friends and family that got tested. They just didn’t match at all. So, yeah, I was a little concerned.”
According to Donate Life America, 18 people on the national waiting list for organ transplants die every day.
“They say the waiting list is anywhere from three and a half to four years,” Pierce said.
Then a sudden twist of fate against Rodiles brought a solution for Pierce.
On Feb. 29, at the age of 46, Rodiles was at home, making cupcakes for Gabriela, when she was overcome by a intense headache.
“It was just so sudden; she was baking cupcakes and then she just sat down and said ‘I have a headache,’” Guler said.
Rodiles’ family took her to a Phoenix hospital where she died of a massive brain hemorage.
“She was an incredible person, and she loved life and she was very passionate about everything she did,” Guler said.
Her many friends and family were very shaken by the suddenness of her death.
In New Rockford Rodiles’ childhood friend, Joanne Gaffrey, called her friend Patty Zink to talk about her loss. During their conversation the topic of organ donation came up.
“Betsy had mentioned that she’d like to be a donor,”Gaffrey said, and at that point Rodiles’ family had decided to go ahead with the donation process.
Zink, who is Pierce’s aunt, mentioned him and asked Gaffrey to thank Rodiles’ family for considering donating her organs.
“It means so much when you know what it’s like to be on that waiting list,” Zink said.
“I just delivered the message,” Gaffrey said. But the message set off an incredible chain of events.
Zink soon received a call from Mike and Carol Birkeland, Rodiles’ brother and sister-in-law. They said they wanted one of Rodiles’ kidneys to go to Pierce.
“I about fell off my chair when they said that,” Zink said.
Through a process called direct donation, the Birkelands could donate Rodiles’ organs to individuals that they would prefer the organs go to.
Pierce was at his son’s basketball game when he got the call.
“It was amazing that we could go ahead and do all of this from Phoenix. Every thing was called in, everything was set up so fast,” Pierce said.
“One of the most comforting aspects of this difficult time has been the organ donation process,” said Guler.
Rodiles’ organs also saved four other people. Her other kidney went to a woman from California; her liver to a recipient in California; her pancreas to a patient in Nebraska; and her lungs to a woman from Arizona.
Doctors praised the pristine condition of Rodiles’ organs.
“After surgery one of the doctors commented that Betsy’s lungs looked like a 19-year-old’s,” Guler said.
On March 3, Pierce was admitted to Medcenter One for his third kidney transplant. He spent a month in the hospital, two weeks of that in the ICU.
“It took a little bit to get out of the hospital but I eventually got out,” Pierce said. “The thing is, I don’t even remember a couple of weeks while I was in the hospital they kept me so sedated.”
Now Pierce’s prognosis is good.
“Every thing’s going good,” Pierce said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better, getting this all the way from Arizona and having everything work out as nicely as it has,” Pierce said.
(James Ziegler is a Bismarck State College Student. He can be reached at 701-302-0822.)