NASVHILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The brown cardboard boxes pass through the hands of Mark Hudson at a dizzying pace, one after another headed to all corners of Tennessee. If only the contents of one of them contained the kidney Mark needs to save his life.
The sounds from the roaring conveyor belts inside this Franklin UPS shipping facility are often so loud it’s near impossible for workers here to talk, let alone carry on any kind of meaningful conversation. Which is why, until recently, most of Mark’s colleagues didn’t know that this 55-year-old man needed a kidney transplant, or he may die.
“I’m just worn down. I’ve been trying to hang in there for the last year and a half but I’m drained and I have no energy,” Mark says as he stands in the narrow space between shelves, packing boxes in the back of a brown UPS truck.
Mark spent nearly three decades driving one of these trucks but when doctors diagnosed him with polycystic kidney disease a few years ago he was forced to transition to the sorting line. The disease has slowly taken away Mark’s kidney functions. Doctors estimate that one of his failing kidneys is operating at around 12 percent, meaning without a transplant he could be weeks away from needing dialysis. The disease, which impacts more than 200,000 people each year, has made Mark so weak that he often misses work.
“I never feel rested. I’ve essentially been on the verge of end stage renal failure for the last year and a half now. It’s scary,” Mark says holding a small scanner that beeps as it reads the barcodes of the packages he’s stacking.
He’s admittedly gained some weight the last few years, mostly because the kidney disease keeps him from being active. Mark’s salt and pepper shaker hair has also started to thin. His wife Jennifer has slowly been watching her husband’s condition deteriorate.
“His color a lot of the times is just very pasty, we knew something had to be done but we were out of option,” says Jennifer who Mark has been married to for the 16 years.
In their seemingly interminable quest to find Mark a kidney, the couple thought they had exhausted nearly every option. Cousins, friends, distant family members they hardly knew, even Jennifer got tested to see if she was a match to give Mark a kidney. None of them were a match.
Jennifer knew the couple would need a miracle for Mark to survive.
“We were out of option but we just had to stick through it,” Jennifer says holding her husband hand.
It was just after Christmas when Mark returned from one of the countless sick days he’s had to take recently. He was preparing to go on short-term disability to begin dialysis when he struck up a conversation with a stranger at work named Heidi Harlson. Heidi happened to be standing next to him on the sorting line. As packages passed by the two of them, Mark began unraveling his story to a stranger. She only had one response.
“I looked at him and said ‘What can I do to help?’” Heidi recalls.
Mark was shocked.
“Basically there was this stranger saying ‘Mark I’ll give you a kidney,’ then she turned to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t you do it for me if I needed one?’” Mark says standing in the UPS warehouse.
“I knew if I could donate a kidney to him, I knew it would help him out. He was ill and I wanted to help,” says Heidi as it turned out spent 22 years as a registered nurse before joining UPS.
The nurse in her knew it was a long shot. But just weeks after their initial conversation, tests determined these two people who hardly knew one another had one very important thing in common, their blood type.
Mark and Heidi were a match.
“It was a very big surprise to both of us,” Heidi says.
“My wife says she’s our angel,” Mark adds with a bit of a crack in his voice.
Doctors wasted no time in scheduling the transplant surgery. Just a month after their initial conversation inside that sprawling UPS factory, Mark and Heidi found themselves sitting next to one another once again. This time though, inside a hospital recovery room at St. Thomas in Nashville.
“I guess it still hasn’t really sunk into me yet. There’s a piece of her in me. Thank God we got through it, thank God,” Mark explains with tubes and machines still attached to his body.
“I just feel very blessed, I tell her all the time I don’t know what to say other than I’m grateful,” he adds just hours after the surgery. Some of his natural skin color already returning to his face.
Mark will spend the next few months being monitored by doctors to make sure Heidi’s kidney isn’t being rejected. But so far the prognosis looks promising for a man who has learned the kindness of strangers can be lifesaving.
“It’s hard to put into words someone being so unselfish.”
For more information on being a kidney donor: https://www.kidney.org/