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Sioux Falls man donates kidney to stranger for his friend

October 6, 2018
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Lance Allen packs his bags Thursday, Sept. 5, 2018, at his home in Sioux Falls as he prepares to leave to donate a kidney. Allen is donating his kidney to his friend Michael Alfieri. (Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — It all started when Lance Allen’s co-workers insisted he had a twin.

The 45-year-old Sioux Falls resident had taken a job at Aprima Medical Software, where he sold electronic health records software. He kept hearing about another sales executive in Florida and how much the two were alike, but he never reached out.

Until a national sales meeting two years ago in Dallas, where Allen finally met Mike Alfieri and realized what all the fuss was about.

“It was like I’d known him my whole life,” Allen said. The two quickly became friends during the course of the convention.

They remained friends even as Allen returned to Sioux Falls and Alfieri headed back to Florida. Allen regarded Alfieri as a loyal colleague and loving father — and someone who never complained.

That made it all the more poignant for Allen when he learned that Alfieri was sick, and had been for some time.

Alfieri, now 44, had been struggling with kidney failure since being diagnosed in 2014. It just wasn’t something he made a point to talk about.

“Mike is one of the most caring people I know,” Allen said. “He gets up, makes breakfast for the kids, gets them to school, goes to work — he does everything a father should do without complaining or asking for sympathy.”

All that, Allen said, while going through symptoms that were “like you have the worst flu of your life, every day.” It had gotten to the point that doctors were unclear on how Alfieri was still able to move around.

It took very little time for Allen to decide his next move. He would donate a kidney to Alfieri, the Argus Leader reported.

“He didn’t sit there and think about it at all,” said his wife, Melissa. “He didn’t even know his blood type.”

“It’s something I just felt compelled to do,” said Allen, an Alcester native who moved to Sioux Falls more than 20 years ago. He had lost both his mother and a sister to disease and recalled “the helpless feeling I had not being able to do anything for them.”

He didn’t want to be helpless anymore.

“I can either stand idly by and watch my friend die,” he said, “or I can go get this done.”

Allen spoke with his family in October of 2017 about the possibility of donating a kidney to Alfieri. They were supportive, he said.

He went to the Mayo Clinic, determined to find out if he was a match.

He wasn’t.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Doctors raised the possibility of another option — a paired kidney exchange, which occurs when a living donor is incompatible with the recipient.

These exchanges can be complex, but here’s a simple example: Donor 1 wants to give a kidney to Recipient 1, but is not a match. Same for Donor 2, hoping to give a kidney to Recipient 2 — they don’t match either. However, Donor 1 is a match for Recipient 2, and Donor 2 is a match for Recipient 1.

Allen and Alfieri’s donation was a bit more complicated — the exchange involved 13 people in total.

Instead of being discouraged by the fact that he wouldn’t be donating a kidney directly to his friend, Allen felt better about the arrangement.

Not only would Alfieri get the kidney he needed, but someone else “will get that call they’ve been praying for,” he said.

Still, the challenges weren’t over. Allen had been cleared on most aspects of the health screening, but his blood pressure was too high.

There were two options to solve that problem. He could take blood pressure medication, or he could lower it naturally through a healthier lifestyle.

Frustrated with the denial, Allen chose both.

In addition to the medication, he began watching what he ate and increasing his activity levels — all while calling the hospital, repeatedly pushing back against the normal waiting period between testing.

“Lance just wanted to do this for Mike,” Melissa said. “And he was going to do anything to make it happen.”

In the end, Allen lost 20 pounds — and now likes to say the two men saved each other’s lives, in a way.

“Being more conscious of my health probably saved years of my life,” Allen said, referencing his wife and six children. “You don’t just live your life for yourself.”

Allen was in the middle of an airport for work when he got the call that his transplant match had been found. Alfieri was going to get a new kidney.

He called his friend in Florida and told him about the approval.

A silence hung in the air until Alfieri broke it.

“I don’t know what to say to you,” he told Allen. “You’re saving my life. When people say they would take a bullet for someone, you never know what they will do when faced with taking the bullet. Lance, you did. You’re taking a bullet for me.”

As both of them began to realize they were about to start crying — Lance in the middle of the airport — they agreed to talk later and share the good news as soon as possible.

In a combined interview with Allen and Alfieri before their surgeries, the bond and rapport between the two was immediately apparent. They joked with each other, but the conversation often turned emotional.

“I’m humbled and speechless,” Alfieri said of Allen’s actions. “It’s restored my faith in humanity.”

Several people had started the process of donating a kidney to Alfieri. They’d all dropped out before the procedure. But not Allen.

“His dedication to the process was different than the others,” Alfieri said. “He wouldn’t waver. To go to these lengths to save my life ... it’s an incredible thing.”

Alfieri’s surgery took place on Sept. 6, with Allen’s five days later. Both men are doing well, although Alfieri’s doctors are still working to determine what medications work best.

With the biggest step out of the way, Alfieri said he’s looking forward to “the idea of getting back to living how I want and not how I have to.”

Allen hopes to one day learn who he donated his kidney to — the donations are initially anonymous. He also had effusive thanks for a family friend who set up a GoFundMe to recoup his expenses from the donation process.

And, of course, both men are thankful for what they called “a unique friendship.”

“It’s amazing,” Alfieri said, “how people come into your life and what kind of an impact they make.”

From across the hospital room, his wife and mother yell a somewhat more succinct echo of his feelings.

“Lance is the man!”

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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