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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

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Kidney Recipient Meets His ‘Angel’

Robert “Budd” Springer, of Court House, got his life back with a donated kidney after being on a waiting list for about five years.

By Karen Knight

Cape May native’s life was changed by Nebraska woman’s selflessness

COURT HOUSE – May 10 was a big day for Robert “Budd” Springer, who got a chance to meet the woman he calls “an angel” for giving him back his life.

Robert “Budd” Springer meeting Jill Pinkelman, who donated a kidney to him through a program aimed at helping veterans. Pinkelman traveled 1,200 miles from her home in Nebraska to meet Springer. Photo Credit: DOVE

Springer, 73, of Court House, was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure five years ago. He was undergoing nightly dialysis, realizing it was “saving my life, but also changing my life.”

But a little over a year ago, he received a kidney through Donor Outreach for Veterans (DOVE), a New Jersey-based organization that matches veterans with living donors nationwide. On May 10, he met Jill Pinkelman, who decided she wanted to donate to a veteran.

“When I tell my friends and family about her, I call Jill my angel,” said an emotional Springer. “She gave me my life back. I am so grateful there are people out there who are so generous and want to help others, especially veterans.”

Springer and Pinkelman and their spouses met at the hospital in Camden where Springer received his kidney. The donor and recipient recalled how they first were introduced via email and Zoom, and what the gifting of the kidney meant to them. In attendance in addition to the two couples were transplant experts from the hospital, DOVE and others from the transplant community.

They exchanged gifts from their hometowns – a Cape May sweatshirt and local candy for Pinkelman, a handmade lap blanket for Springer. Both were emotional during their meeting, thanking everyone for their support during the entire process.

Before his diagnosis, the grandfather of nine had been enjoying an active retirement from both the National Guard and his job as facilities director for Cape May County. Springer and his wife, Lorraine, traveled frequently, and he’d begun volunteering for Habitat for Humanity Cape May County.

Robert “Budd” Springer shows off his catch while spending the winter in Florida after the transplant.

“I wasn’t feeling well, but I had no idea it was my kidneys,” the Cape May County native recalled. “A routine blood test diagnosed it.”

After his diagnosis, Springer worked closely with doctors to slow the disease’s progression through diet, exercise and medication. He was also evaluated by the team from Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Camden, for kidney transplantation, and was placed on the waiting list for a deceased-donor kidney transplant. Eventually, though, he needed dialysis.

“You can’t live a normal lifestyle on dialysis,” Springer said. “It’s very invasive, it’s very uncomfortable. It really restricts your ability to travel and do things.”

He hoped for a transplant to restore his health. But he’d been unable to find a living donor, and felt uncertain about his future. “But I was determined to live with it,” he said.

Springer’s Virtua transplant coordinator encouraged him to contact DOVE, which matched him with Pinkelman, from the tiny town of Newcastle in northeast Nebraska. They each underwent extensive testing to ensure their blood and tissue were compatible, among other health criteria.

“Jill didn’t know me, but she wanted to donate to a veteran. That just touched my heart,” said Springer, a retired lieutenant colonel who served 36 years in the New Jersey Army National Guard.

Pinkelman decided to become a kidney donor after reading about DOVE.

Donor’s Gift of Life

She’d learned about living kidney donation from a 2022 story in Woman’s Day magazine. Written by a DOVE kidney donor, the piece was titled “She Saved a Stranger’s Life.”

Jill Pinkelman: “If you’re a veteran in need, you should be supported by your country and by other people.”

“I read the article in November, and by January I was getting tested,” said Pinkelman, 50.

Her husband, Daryl Johannsen, was immediately supportive of her plans, noting that both are volunteer first responders.

“I’m a firefighter and Jill is an EMT. We’re about saving lives,” he said.

Pinkelman also was motivated by the sacrifices of veterans she knows, including friends who’ve struggled with PTSD after serving in Iraq.

“I’d want to do anything I could to help them,” she said. “People give a lot of lip service about supporting our troops, but how many do something about it?”

Pinkelman’s father served in the National Guard. He was also a long-time volunteer firefighter, as is her brother. An uncle has chronic kidney disease.

In fact, volunteers saved Pinkelman’s life when she was hit by a car and gravely injured at age 15.

“If it hadn’t been for volunteer responders, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. She needed years of treatment for multiple injuries.

“I want to give back for all the people who’ve helped me throughout my life.

“If you’re a veteran in need, you should be supported by your country and by other people. I thought, ‘I could do something like that.’”

DOVE’s founder and executive director, Sharon Kreitzer, agreed wholeheartedly.

“It’s about creating communities that support each other,” said the former social worker and kidney donor. “Veterans, especially, have given so much and asked for so little in return.”

Springer learned of the match in a Target parking lot, while heading to a family outing.

“It was shocking, and it was a funny situation,” recalled Springer, whose son-in-law was behind the wheel. Springer’s wife, youngest daughter and 3-year-old grandson were also in the car.

“I answered the phone and they said, ‘This is DOVE, and we have a donor for you. You’re going to have a new kidney on March 23rd’ – which was just two weeks later,” he said.

The vehicle quickly filled with laughter and joyful tears. “It was just amazing,” he said.

The Transplant

The Virtua team and Pinkelman’s hospital, Avera Transplant Institute in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, coordinated the donor’s and recipient’s surgeries to occur on the same day. Pinkelman’s kidney was quickly flown to Philadelphia and then transported to Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes in Camden.

Within just 11 hours of Pinkelman’s procedure, Virtua surgeons Ely Sebastian and Ann Thompson began Springer’s two-and-a-half-hour transplant.

The organ started working immediately inside Springer, who recovered quickly.

“Once I left the hospital, I never took a pain pill. I could walk, I could take care of myself – it was amazing,” he said.

“My experience with Virtua Advanced Transplant and Organ Health has been fantastic. From helping me stay on the transplant list, to doing all the testing and organizing, to actually getting the transplant, and then the care afterwards – they’ve been wonderful.”

Lorraine Springer is equally grateful. “I can’t believe where we are today. It’s like a whole new life since the transplant,” she said. She and her husband celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in February.

Coincidentally, Springer’s 53-year-old son, Eric, also had a kidney transplant last year. “What’s the chances that we both would receive a kidney from a live donor who lives out of state?” Springer asked. “It’s a miracle. Eric’s not a vet, so it’s under different circumstances. It’s Eric’s story to tell.”

Budd and Lorraine Springer celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in February.

Excited to Get Together

“I still can’t believe that I got a living kidney from this wonderful lady who doesn’t know me, and she just did it out of the kindness of her heart. It’s just unbelievable.”

Pinkelman concealed her identity before the transplant. But a week after, she agreed to a video call.

“I think we were all initially waiting to make sure everything was OK,” Springer said. “We wanted to be sure no one had any complications.

“It was emotional. I made a promise to Jill that I would take very good care of this kidney, and I am. I’m not doing anything that can harm it.”

Now, more than a year later, they finally had the chance to meet.

“Budd is able to travel and see his grandkids. He’s able to live his life again. That gives me chills,” Pinkelman said.

Springer said, “I just want to spend time with my grandchildren. I want to be there to teach them, to help them through life. And for my children, even though they’re grown up. And I want to spend quality time with my wife, especially.”

Springer is excited to be traveling to Houston later this month for the birth of his 10th grandchild. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that before the transplant,” he said, “or not very easily, because I would have had to have all my dialysis equipment, supplies, etc., sent there first.”

The Need

About 38 million Americans – one in 10 – have chronic kidney disease, although 90% don’t know it. The condition often leads to kidney failure and the need for a transplant.

Today, 92,000 people in the U.S. are on a waiting list for a kidney. An estimated 12 die each day before a donated kidney becomes available.

“Many people don’t realize they can donate a kidney while they’re alive. So it’s really important to get the word out and to connect people who wouldn’t otherwise find each other, through organizations like DOVE,” said Dr. Anita Mehrotra, Springer’s transplant nephrologist at Virtua Advanced Transplant and Organ Health.

Importantly, a kidney from a living donor is generally healthier and lasts longer than a kidney from a deceased person, said Christine Palms, RN, senior vice president of tertiary services and planning for Virtua.

“People only need one healthy kidney, so the donor’s health is not compromised by the donation,” said Palms, who oversees the organ transplant program.

Contact the reporter, Karen Knight, at kknight@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Karen Knight is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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