Living kidney donation

Nicole saved her neighbor and became our 4,000th living donor

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

The story of the UW Health Transplant Center’s 4000th living donor began at a church event in January 2023.

Nicole Knoblock, 44, and her husband Travis were sitting at a table with their neighbor, Sam Zimmerman, who was telling them about his struggles with polycystic kidney disease. Sam, 45, shared that many members of his family had struggled with the disease and needed a kidney transplant, but he was disappointed that his need for a kidney transplant had come sooner for him than he anticipated.

After the Knoblocks returned home that night, they started talking about how they could help their neighbor and friend. They knew Travis wouldn’t be able to donate a kidney to Sam because of health issues, but Nicole might. “We figured the chances of us being a match were slim to none, but I thought I would try anyway,” Nicole said.

Nicole completed a phone interview and set up testing for the first week of April. While she underwent tests and spoke to members of the UW Health transplant team, Travis and their son enjoyed a fun day out and about in Madison.

In the meantime, Sam’s sister was trying to become a donor, as well. Unfortunately, in June, she learned that health issues would prevent her from donating a kidney to her brother, so the UW Health team reached out to Nicole. Team members explained that while Nicole wasn’t an exact match, she still had two options for helping him:

  1. She could participate in a paired kidney exchange, during which she would give her kidney to someone else, and their living donor would give a kidney to Sam. In that situation, all the surgeries would occur on the same day.

  2. She could donate a kidney to someone else on behalf of Sam, thereby significantly shortening his wait time for a living donor kidney that was a match.

Nicole decided the second option would be best, since she works for a school district and could schedule her donation to take place over the summer. “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. “I remember going into the surgical room and thinking how white it was in there,” she said. “I looked around the room at all the people who were assisting with the surgery and said, ‘There’s so many of you, and only one of me!’ Everyone was super friendly and extremely helpful with my questions.”

Less than three months later, Sam received his long-awaited kidney from another living donor on Sept. 13. When he told Nicole that a donor had been found for him, tears streamed down her face and she gave him a huge hug.

Recovery has gone well for both friends. Nicole was already walking the halls of the hospital the day after her surgery, and she was able to return to work at the start of the school year in fall 2023. Meanwhile, Sam said, he “just kind of soared through it.”

Sam, who is a farmer, had been forced to sell all his 250 milk cows the year before his transplant because it was too difficult to care for them. He started renting out his barns to another farmer and had to stick to just crop farming until he started feeling better.

His transplant has now changed his outlook. “There was a point, two weeks after my transplant, where I started really feeling good,” he said. “I started dreaming about the future again. I had spent the whole last year selling dairy equipment, and now I’m thinking about building my farm back up again.”

Nicole said she is proud to be the 4000th living donor at UW Health, following in the footsteps of all the others who donated kidneys or parts of their liver. “I was grateful to be able to help two people—both Sam and the person who received my kidney,” she said.