Every time Jeff Botnen glances at the small scar on his abdomen, he remembers the thousands of Americans who struggle each day with kidney disease.
A year-and-a-half ago, he donated a kidney to one of them. Now he's an advocate for kidney disease awareness and education. He also has been a key organizer for the area's first Kidney Walk, will be held Saturday at Newman Outdoor Field in Fargo.
The Fargo real estate agent is an unlikely poster child for the disease that kills more than 80,000 people in the United States each year. The disease doesn't run in his family. Before he donated a kidney, he knew only one person plagued by it.
But a few years ago, the father of three was touched by a WDAY-TV story about a young child who needed a kidney transplant. Seeing the pain of the child's mom as she talked about her son's trials tugged at Botnen's heart. He decided to see if he would be a donor match.
Still, the Fargo man couldn't turn away. If he was willing to donate his kidney to one person he didn't know, he decided he should be willing to donate it to another.
When Botnen asked whether he could be put on a waiting list, the donor coordinator said there was no need - they could find a match for his kidney whenever he was ready.
"I hadn't realized how big kidney disease is," he says. "The more I studied it, the more I realized I needed to do this."
About 16,000 people received a kidney transplant in 2007, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Fewer than 800 of those were from living anonymous donors.
"It's very uncommon," says Breanne Doroff of the National Kidney Foundation's St. Paul office. "A lot of people don't know that you can donate to someone you don't know."
In late January 2007, Botnen donated one of his kidneys to a 52-year-old man from the Twin Cities. The act not only affected Botnen, but his family, too.
While their father was in the hospital recovering from surgery Botnen's three children purchased their dad items with the Superman logo on them, an honor for their own super hero.
Earlier this year, Botnen's oldest son, James, started "Running for a Cure," through which he raises money to provide free screenings for people at risk of chronic kidney disease.
The 21-year-old isn't at a point in his life where he is ready to donate an organ, but James wanted to do something to help those with the disease and to honor his dad.
"He has always been my hero, and I have looked up to him my whole life, but now he is a hero who saved a life. Although my Dad doesn't brag about donating his kidney, I brag about him all the time," James Botnen wrote in a letter to the National Kidney Foundation.
Botnen hasn't met the person who received his kidney. Last fall he received a letter from the man's wife who said the father of two children younger than Botnen's own now has the energy to bike with his family and carry on a conversation.
Botnen carries the letter with him always, a testament to the difference one man can make in the life of another.
But the Fargo man's involvement doesn't end there.
He speaks with young drivers about becoming organ donors. Earlier this month he traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask politicians for more funding for kidney disease education. And this Saturday he'll walk with nearly 200 others to raise money for screenings.
Botnen says that bringing more awareness to kidney disease is now his mission, his calling.
"I couldn't just donate a kidney and move on," he says.
If you go
- What: Kidney Walk
- When: 9 a.m. Saturday (registration)
- Where: Newman Outdoor Field, Fargo
- Info: (800) 596-7943 or www.kidneywalk.org
Kidney disease by the numbers
- 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease.
- 485,000 Americans require dialysis or a kidney transplant to survive.
- 341,000 patients receive dialysis at least three times a week.
Source: The United States Renal Data System, 2007 Data Report
Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534