CHIPPEWA FALLS — Give and take is common among friends, and Don Elliott and Kyle Brandt are no exception.
But the Chippewa County men, who have been trading good-natured jabs since becoming best friends in fourth grade, took their exchanges to a new level in October.
That’s when Kyle donated one of his kidneys to Don, whose kidneys were the size of watermelons and failing as a result of polycystic kidney disease, a genetic condition that runs in his family.
In return, Don gave Kyle his everlasting gratitude and, hopefully, many more years of a rare friendship that has seen both serve as best man in the other’s wedding.
“The biggest thing for me, first and foremost, is to recognize Kyle,” Don said. “He did something that was so special and so amazing to help me. What a gift from God Kyle was to do this.”
Remarkably, it wasn’t the first time Kyle has been in the right place at the right time to help his best buddy.
The pair, both 68 and 1969 graduates of Chippewa Falls High School, reckon the kidney donation was the third time Kyle has saved Don’s life in their six decades of friendship — the first coming in seventh grade when Kyle helped prevent Don from drowning and the second occurring after Don crashed his motorcycle when both men were 20 years old.
As for Kyle’s latest life-saving measure, the Tilden resident said he knew immediately he wanted to get tested to see if he was a match to donate a kidney.
“I didn’t think twice about it. It was automatic,” he said. “I was glad to help out a friend.”
The transplant was performed Oct. 23 at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and both men said in an interview last week they are doing great.
The first time Kyle saved his friend’s life was in the summer of 1963, when Don got a cramp and sank to the bottom of the pool while the two were swimming at the Eau Claire YMCA. Kyle immediately yelled to his dad, who jumped in and hauled Don out of the pool.
The second incident took place in February 1972 when the men were riding motorcycles together. After doing some drag racing, they went riding in a town of Hallie gravel pit not far from where Highway 29 crosses the Chippewa River today. They decided to be rebels and take their helmets off — a choice they now recognize was foolish — as they whizzed up and down giant sand dunes.
At one point, Kyle recalled that the pair raced up a hill and he went down first, but Don didn’t follow. As Kyle waited at the bottom, he heard Don’s motorcycle shut off. He called out Don’s name a couple of times but got no response.
After rushing up the hill to check on Don, Kyle found his friend lying on the ground unconscious with his head split open. After being thrown from his cycle, Don’s head apparently had struck a piece of iron jutting out of the mound.
“He wasn’t quite as good a rider as I was,” Kyle teased, interrupting his story with one of many volleys in a seemingly endless exchange of friendly fire between the pals, always followed by a burst of laughter.
But Kyle, recognizing the seriousness of the situation at the time, raced back to his bike, grabbed a greasy rag — “That explains a lot,” he joked — and packed the wound as well as he could to stop the bleeding. Long before the advent of cellphones, Kyle then had to go to three nearby houses before he found someone home who could call 911.
It took 45 minutes before an ambulance arrived because the crew initially went to the wrong gravel pit, Kyle said.
For his part, Don doesn’t remember anything between entering the gravel pit and waking up in the hospital three days later and seeing his dad.
After that scare, Don lived an active, healthy life until one day in 1987 when he grew dizzy and felt sick while doing push-ups for exercise. Testing revealed he had polycystic kidney disease, something that afflicted his father, sister, one of two brothers, one grandmother and two of five uncles.
People with a family history of the disease have about a 50 percent chance of passing it on to their children, a statistic that led to Don and his wife, Gina, to make the difficult decision not to have kids.
Don said he had few symptoms for years other than an oversized belly, which he eventually learned was the result of his growing kidneys that were filled with cysts.
Yet his kidney function gradually declined until 2017, when doctors told him his kidneys were failing and he needed to join the more than 90,000 Americans awaiting a kidney on the national organ transplant waiting list.
He faced the prospect of waiting about five years — the average — for a kidney from a deceased donor unless a living donor emerged. Don’s older brother Dave was on the waiting list for six years, and on dialysis for five, before receiving a kidney four years ago from a deceased donor who saved multiple lives by donating her organs.
Still, Don and Gina protested when Kyle volunteered to get tested. But Kyle wouldn’t take no for an answer and went to Mayo Clinic in November 2018 for testing.
When the results came back that he was a match, Kyle and his wife, Linda, broke the news to Don and Gina when the two couples, who get together three or four times a week, gathered to eat pizza and play cards on Gina’s birthday.
The message scrawled inside of a silly birthday card: “Your birthday present is a kidney for Don! We love you two!”
After the news sunk in, all four broke down and cried, and Gina declared it a birthday gift that will never be topped.
“Neither one of you will ever understand how much this has changed our lives,” Gina said, her voice cracking, as she addressed the Brandts last week in the family room of the Elliotts’ town of Wheaton home overlooking the Chippewa River. “It’s such a precious gift.”
Kyle responded, “We don’t even think of it that way. It’s just what you do.”
Linda nodded and said she fully supported Kyle’s decision from the start.
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The good fortune of having his best friend — the first person tested on his behalf — be a match is not lost on Don.
“What are the odds of that? It’s just crazy,” Don exclaimed. “I was just blown away when Kyle told me he was a match.”
Naturally, the pair quickly turned it into a punchline, with Don joking that he befriended Kyle all those years ago on the playground at the former 9th Ward Elementary in Chippewa Falls after sizing him up and determining he might be a good potential kidney donor someday.
“If that was the case, you should have taken better care of me,” Kyle shot back, mentioning all the beer they’ve consumed together.
To Kyle’s amusement, testing showed that even the kidney he was donating to Don, somehow appropriately, came with a surprise inside.
Doctors told Kyle it had the very beginning of a tiny kidney stone but then added, “But don’t worry, that’s the one we’re going to give Don anyway,” Don said, chuckling as he retells a story he’s heard many times.
Without hesitation, Kyle described his reaction: “Cool. Wait ‘til you’ve got to piss that out. Don’t be yelling my name,” setting off another round of laughter.
The transplant originally was scheduled on March 23, but doctors postponed it over concerns about Don’s stress test results. A week before he was supposed to get the new kidney, doctors told Don he needed triple bypass surgery first because a transplanted kidney wouldn’t survive without good blood flow.
“I would’ve been mad,” Kyle deadpanned about the prospect of Don not taking care of his donated kidney.
Don was put on dialysis — relying on machines to perform the blood purification function normally done by kidneys — as he recovered from heart surgery.
By the time the new transplant surgery date arrived, Don’s kidneys had grown to the size of 9-month-old babies, said Dr. Mikel Prieto, the Mayo Clinic transplant surgeon who performed Don’s procedure.
“Don was a thin guy, but he had this huge belly because of his kidneys,” Prieto said, noting that a normal kidney is only about the size of a fist. “It was almost like he was carrying a twin pregnancy.”
To remove the super-sized kidneys, each estimated to weigh 20 to 25 pounds, the surgical team shrunk them inside Don’s belly before taking them out through a small incision.
“Doing a kidney transplant is always a very satisfying surgery in terms of the benefits the patient has after surgery, but it’s particularly impressive in patients that have huge kidneys taken out,” Prieto said. “We solve both problems at once, and there is a huge improvement in their life overnight.”
Don went into surgery weighing 220 pounds and came out at 180 pounds and telling the medical staff how light he felt.
“I can breathe a lot better now,” Don said. “Before I would be out of breath if I bent over to tie my shoes because those big kidneys were pushing on my diaphragm.”
While dialysis can keep people alive after their kidneys fail and donations from deceased donors are crucial, “the best option by far is getting a kidney from a relative or friend,” Prieto said, adding that Mayo does four to six living donor kidney transplants a week in Rochester.
“It’s amazing how generous people are, especially here in the Midwest,” he said. “This can be done very safely, and we encourage people who know someone who needs a kidney transplant to consider giving this remarkable gift of life.”
Don wholeheartedly agrees, saying, “It’s an amazing thing to get one,” and expressing hope that sharing his story might inspire someone else to consider donating a kidney.
He also heaped praise on the doctors who turn such dreams into reality.
“I can’t say enough about these surgeons,” Don said. “They’re the true heroes. Everyday they’re changing people’s lives and saving people’s lives.”
From the donor’s perspective, Kyle downplayed the experience, declaring that donating a kidney was much easier than his surgeries to have two shoulders and two knees replaced.
“It really was no big deal. I got a sore stomach, kind of like I did 1,000 sit-ups, or maybe 10 in my case,” Kyle said in typical playful fashion.
Not surprisingly, considering the strong bond between Don and Kyle, who even worked together at the former Amoco plastics foam plant in Chippewa Falls for nine years, the wives reported that the first thing both men did upon waking up after surgery was inquire about the other.
It took a while for the staff, trained to be extremely conscientious about privacy, to realize these two couples were happy to share everything — up to and including a body part — so Gina and Linda ended up going into the rooms together so they could relay information to the other patient two doors down.
By the time both men were mobile, “We could just walk back and forth and (BS) all day,” Kyle said.
The experience has only brought the men closer together. It’s also made them reflect on all they’ve been through together in 60 years of friendship — from the many good times marked by grinning photos around the Elliotts’ family room to the three times Kyle has saved Don’s life.
“You’ve had a guardian angel by your side your whole life,” Gina said to Don, “and you didn’t even know it.”
“The biggest thing for me, first and foremost, is to recognize Kyle. He did something that was so special and so amazing to help me. What a gift from God Kyle was to do this.” Don Elliot