April 3, 2024

Neighbors share lasting bond through living kidney donation

Woman in Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt next to man in jacket, both smiling and standing in front of cows feeding in a barn.

MADISON, Wis. – Separated by a half mile of road in central Wisconsin, Nicole Knoblock and Sam Zimmermann call one another their closest neighbor; that connection grew much deeper in 2023 when Knoblock donated one of her kidneys to help her friend who was suffering from a debilitating disease.

“Why wouldn’t I want help?” Knoblock said. “I cannot imagine being so sick and not knowing if I will see my kids grow up.”

Zimmermann was sick and getting sicker from polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disease that causes clusters of cysts to develop within the kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function over time. The 45-year-old dairy farmer was exhausted and no longer had the energy to milk cows, clean barns or spend time with his wife and four children.

“I wasn’t supposed to be this sick at this time of my life,” he said. “I knew I would need a transplant one day, but I didn’t expect to need one so soon.”

Zimmermann also did not expect to find his donor in the chair next to him at their church’s annual charity dinner. In January 2023, hewassitting at a table with Knoblock and her husband when Zimmermann first told the Knoblocks about his struggles with polycystic kidney disease. He shared how his fatherand several other family membersalso had the disease andmostneeded transplants later in life, and how he was now seeking a donor because his kidney function was deteriorating. After the Knoblocks returned home that evening, they started talking about how they could help their neighbor and friend. It was their son who ultimately convinced Knoblock that evening to start the process of becoming a living kidney donor.

“He told me ‘Mom, you gotta do what you gotta do to help someone’ and I couldn’t argue with that,” she said. “It seemed like a one-in-a-million chance, but I did it.”

Knoblock first filled out an online form which led to a phone interview with the living donation team at the UW Health Transplant Center. The next step in the process took her from her home near Wausau, to University Hospital in Madison for a comprehensive physical and mental evaluation in early April 2023.

By summer, Knoblock learned that she was not an exact match for her neighbor, however, she could still help him by donating through the National Kidney Registry. It is a network that connects living donors to compatible recipients. These paired kidney exchanges take place when a donor and recipient have different blood types or are not a good match for other reasons, according to Scot Johnson, manager of living donation at the UW Health Transplant Center.

“The National Kidney Registry enables us to expand the pool of potential recipients and allows for better matching and therefore lower risk of rejection,” he said. “By donating a kidney to someone else on behalf of Sam, Nicole was able to significantly shorten his wait time for a living donor kidney that was a match.”

This option allowed Knoblock, a special education teacher, to schedule her donation to take place over the summer and recover in enough time to return to the classroom in the fall.

“I was a bit nervous because everything was finally happening,” she said. “It was all suddenly real.”

She gave the gift of life on July 27, 2023, and with her donation, became the 4,000th living donor at the UW Health Transplant Center.

Dr. David Foley, transplant surgeon, UW Health, and professor of surgery, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, performed the surgery. Before leaving the hospital the following day, Foley met Knoblock in the Hilary Grace Healing Garden at University Hospital and they took a picture to commemorate her donation.

“I wasn’t thinking about the milestone, I was just so excited that I could go for a walk,” she said. “I was focused on my healing as well as when Sam would have his surgery.”

Less than one week after Knoblock’s donation, Zimmermann learned that a donor had been found for him. He’d been undergoing dialysis since the spring and was eager to no longer rely on machines and regain his energy. When he told Knoblock, tears streamed down her face, and she gave him a huge hug.

“I am blessed to have her as a neighbor,” he said. “We will be family forever.”

Zimmermann received his long-awaited kidney from another living donor on Sept. 13, 2023. Dr. David Aufhauser, transplant surgeon, UW Health, and assistant professor of surgery, UW School of Medicine and Public Health, performed the surgery, removing both of Zimmermann’s old kidneys before transplanting the new one.

“Sam’s enlarged kidneys were causing him significant discomfort and other problems,” he said. “While there is a longer recovery time from a dual surgery, we knew it would result in a meaningful increase in his quality of life.”

Zimmermann was eager to return to a normal life. He made the decision to sell his 250 cows the year before his transplant because it was too difficult to manage and care for them. He started renting out his barns to another farmer and had to stick to crop farming until he started feeling better. That feeling came about two weeks following his transplant.

“I started dreaming about the future again,” he said. “I picked up a farming magazine and flipped through it to get ideas to build my farm back up again.”

Knoblock is thrilled to see her friend dreaming again, knowing she played a part in his recovery. She’s proud to be the 4000th living donor at UW Health, following in the footsteps of the others who donated a kidney or part of their liver.

“There were 3,999 people who donated before me and I hope there are 3,999 people after me,” she said. “I was grateful to be able to help two people, both Sam and the person who received my kidney.”

B-roll and a recorded interview with Knoblock and Zimmermann are available. A recorded interview with Johnson is also available. Knoblock and Zimmermann are available for interviews.