Strangers no more
BAXTER — Jeff Nelson woke up one morning last fall and knew that he wanted to donate a kidney to his co-worker’s teenage son. He also knew, deep in his heart, that they would be a match.
But it took Nelson, a Forestview educational assistant and assistant Brainerd High School gymnastics coach, some time to convince Kathi Dosh, also a Forestview educational assistant, that he was very serious — and determined — to be her son Aaron’s donor.
The two didn’t know each other that well, but Nelson knew of the Dosh family’s struggles in recent years, including the unexpected death of Kathi Dosh’s husband, Gary, in June 2008 and Aaron’s diagnosis of end stage renal failure just one month into his senior year in October 2009. He has been undergoing dialysis for about four hours a time, three days a week.
Aaron, 19, a 2010 BHS graduate, had hoped to receive a kidney from his cousin, Alannah Dosh, also a 2010 BHS graduate, but unfortunately final testing last summer revealed she wasn’t a match. It was disappointing news for all involved and this past November Aaron was placed on a kidney transplant list.
That’s when Kathi Dosh asked Nelson if he was serious about donating his kidney to Aaron. Nelson immediately called the transplant coordinator to set up testing to see if he was a match. Nelson had spent last summer working on his stepson’s commercial salmon fishing boat in Alaska, a particularly spiritual experience. There were a few times out at sea when he wasn’t sure he was going to make it back to shore. He returned home with a newfound purpose of helping someone. When he learned that Aaron didn’t have his kidney transplant last summer, he knew he needed to step up to the plate.
“It surprised me that a stranger was enthusiastic about doing this,” said Kathi Dosh.
Kathi Dosh said her daughter, Ali, a nursing student at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, wanted to donate a kidney to her brother but Aaron was against it. He didn’t want something to happen to himself and his sister, which would leave his mom alone.
As it turned out, Nelson was a match.
“God has a way of doing things,” Nelson said with a smile.
Nelson told the Doshes that he needed to fit the kidney transplant in between the gymnastic season and spring community education gymnastic classes, which he teaches. He found a way to make it work.
Nelson left Thursday for the Class 2A state gymnastics tournament, which starts Friday, and was to undergo his final pre-operative physical early Friday morning at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis but was anticipated to pass it.
At 55, Nelson doesn’t act his age, said his wife, Sue. He eats well, is in good shape and has always taken care of himself, she said.
Aaron had his final physical Tuesday, which he passed.
The kidney transplant will take place Tuesday morning at HCMC. First Nelson will go in for surgery and his left kidney will be removed. Aaron’s surgery to have Dosh’s kidney transplanted on his left side will follow. It’s anticipated the entire process will take about 3-1/2 hours.
Nelson is expected to spend two days in the hospital with 2-1/2 weeks of recovery time. He is hopeful he’ll be fully recovered to return to work by the end of March and able to coach by April 4 when spring gymnastics starts.
Aaron will have a more lengthy recovery process. He is expected to spend about five days in the hospital and up to three months living in an apartment he and his mom rented near the hospital because he’ll have to go in a few times a week for testing to make sure his body doesn’t reject Nelson’s kidney. He’ll also have to take classes on living with a donor kidney. His mom plans to stay with him for a few weeks and return to work part-time after that, with frequent trips to the Twin Cities to stay with him as he recovers.
“I’m excited,” Nelson said of the transplant. “I don’t even fear this. I’m at peace.”
Nelson’s fifth-grade students made him a sign that lists all the words that describe him: “Amazing,” “Brave,” “Life-giving” and “Tough.”
“To be honest, I’m very nervous,” said Aaron of the transplant.
He has been attending Central Lakes College this year but recently had to quit school because of his impending transplant and lengthy recovery. Nelson met Aaron for the first time a couple of weeks ago as he was undergoing dialysis.
“My kidney said, ‘I’ve gotta meet this guy,’” Nelson joked. “My kidney isn’t going into a stranger, it’s going into family.”
Dosh is expected to have his final dialysis appointment Monday morning. It was hard for the teen to believe that this will end soon.
“This is why I’m doing it,” Nelson said, so Aaron could end his many hours of dialysis. “I’m giving you back a life.”
“I appreciate it,” Dosh told him.
Nelson spent 20 years in the Air Force before returning to the Brainerd lakes area. He ran into BHS gymnastics coach Dave Maras in 1995, who had been Nelson’s gymnastics coach, and he talked him into becoming a gymnastics spotter. Nelson has since been an assistant gymnastics coach and an educational assistant in the school district for the past 16 years, both jobs he loves. He also donates blood often, losing track of how many gallons he’s donated over the years.
“I love life and I have fun,” Nelson said. “My philosophy is every day is a good day and some days are better than others.”
The Nelsons have five grown children and two grandsons between them. Jeff Nelson said he would like Aaron to meet his family. The Nelsons and Doshes both said they may have to celebrate March 1st together each year, much like a birthday, since it will mark the beginning of a new life for Aaron.
“I want to give him a better life than what he has,” Nelson said. “We’ll always have that bond after this.”
As the Nelsons and the Doshes stood together at Forestview Middle School in Baxter Thursday, several teachers and school staff gave them hugs, wished them well and said they would be praying for them all.
To stay updated on the transplant and Aaron’s recovery, visit his CaringBridge.org webpage at www.caringbridge.org/visit/aarondosh.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.