It started with an Uber ride.
Bill Sumiel, in his 70s with a history of diabetes, was heading home from the Vascular Institute in Vineland, New Jersey, where he had been treated for a blood clot. His driver was Timothy Letts of Cape May, New Jersey, who was in his 30s and in great health.
The two struck up a conversation during the 40-minute ride — Sumiel sharing that after more than three years on the kidney transplant list, he was in desperate need of a donor. By the time they pulled up to Sumiel’s home, Letts, a U.S. Army veteran with a passion for helping others, had made Sumiel the offer of a lifetime.
“Tim says, ‘If you’ll take my name and number, I’d like to donate a kidney to you,’” Sumiel told 6ABC in an interview. “I was shaking so bad I could hardly write his name and number.”
Letts was true to his word. With Sumiel, who had been a ChristianaCare patient since 2017, Letts joined the health system’s Kidney Transplant Program.
A perfect match
The months-long process began when Letts met with the program’s team, including Stacey Strazzella, BSN, RN, CCRN, the ChristianaCare nurse coordinator who works with living donors.
Following an initial interview, living donors like Letts review paperwork, share their medical records with the transplant team and participate in testing. Each living donor is also required to meet with an independent living donor advocate, who ensures the donor understands informed consent, as well as their rights and responsibilities as donor.
Transplant recipients with a living donor have the best outcomes.
A living donor transplant is a procedure where a kidney is removed from a healthy donor and its surgically implanted in a recipient with kidney failure.
The living donor can be anyone who is healthy to donate. It can be a family member, spouse or friend. Living donor kidneys can also come from strangers or someone who wants to help someone in need of a kidney.
Letts said the donor process was “smooth and uncomplicated,” adding that he felt well-informed and never pressured to go through with the donation.
“The wonderful and kind medical staff, from nurses to doctors to social workers, made me feel like my care was the top priority,” Letts said. “They asked me several times if I was sure I wanted to donate, all the way up and until just before anesthesia. They were so kind and welcoming and caring, it really makes a difference.”
The duo had their surgeries on December 7, 2021, at ChristianaCare.
Sumiel said he was so comfortable before and after surgery that he was in no hurry to leave.
“All the doctors, nurses, and the entire ChristianaCare transplant team are on the same page and treat you as an individual who they care for,” he said.
“All this was done during the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it even more remarkable.”
‘A gift of life’
Since then, both men have resumed their normal lives. Letts has since moved to Germany where he works for the Army as a civilian in Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation. Sumiel continues his rehabilitation, while working full time. He enjoys playing chess, and hopes to feel well enough to play golf this summer.
Considering becoming a living donor? Call 302-623-3866 to get the process started.
Living donor surgeries have a number of benefits, Strazzella said. While hopeful kidney recipients can wait up to 10 years on a donation list, living donations often can be arranged within months. Living donor kidneys generally function immediately after transplant; a deceased donor kidney may take days or weeks to function normally.
Also, because living donor transplants are planned in advance, both the donor and the recipient are at their optimal health for surgery, and the kidney spends very little time outside the body as the surgeries are simultaneous.
For someone like Sumiel, whose children were unable to donate and who was looking at a long wait on the donor list, his only hope seemed to be the kindness of a stranger.
“If I hadn’t shared my story with Tim, I would have never gotten a kidney,” Sumiel told 6ABC.
“Giving a kidney is actually a gift of life and I feel so fortunate to have that gift.”