FOND DU LAC, Wis. — When Nicole Braatz met Paul Osterholm in 2001, she had no idea that more than 15 years later, he would be saving her life through a kidney donation.
Hired to run Marian University's Common Grounds when it opened, Osterholm, of Pipe, met Braatz, of Waupun, when she was commissioned by then-president of the university Dr. Richard Ridenour to design the logo and sign through her small business, Nicole's Sign Works.
Gathering with their families beneath that sign in the weeks leading up to the transplant, wearing shirts reading "Share Your Spare Kidney," they couldn't help but see the hand fate was playing throughout the process.
Braatz, 48, had no major health issues throughout her life, and so, when she began experiencing symptoms of kidney failure, she and doctors didn't recognize them as such. At the doctor's office on Dec. 20, 2017, she said she had a sinus infection which wasn't going away. In the midst of flu season, the doctor told her that she, too, had the virus.
But her symptoms persisted. She couldn't keep down whatever she consumed. Food tasted odd. She couldn't catch her breath. Her legs swelled, from her knees to her ankles, to an extent where her jeans no longer fit.
Going to the doctor multiple times, the doctor continued to tell her she had the flu. One day, a month into being sick, she took a sip of coffee and threw it up. She knew she had to get to the bottom of her illness.
On her fourth visit to the doctor, she went to urgent care and told him something was wrong. He ran blood tests and put her on an IV as she waited for the results.
An hour later, the direction of her life completely changed as the doctor told her she was "hours or days" away from going into cardiac arrest and her kidneys were functioning at three percent. The cause for the kidney failure was — and is still — unknown.
The shock set in first.
"When he told me that, I was like, 'no, no,'" she told the Fond du Lac Reporter .
The kidney failure made Braatz one of about 1,200 people waiting for a kidney in Wisconsin, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS.
Braatz looked first to her seven sisters.
With a blood type O, while Braatz can donate to anyone, only those with O blood type can donate to her. In her family, matching sisters had high blood pressure or juvenile diabetes, disqualifying them from giving. The rest of her sisters had blood type A or B.
"We weren't even thinking. We thought someone was going to be an O," said Candy Braatz-Markert, Braatz' sister.
In the United States, the average wait time for a kidney is three to five years "at most centers," according to the National Kidney Foundation. At UW Health, where Braatz is being treated, the median time for patients receive a transplant from 2010 to 2015 was about 20 months.
But this differs with blood type, Braatz said. In her search, wait times for those in need of a kidney with type A or B blood came in around two to three years, but with O, it was five years or more.
Not wanting to wait years for a deceased donor, the Braatz family took to social media to get the word out, writing a letter about her story and posting it on Facebook. They received hundreds of replies, said her mother, Mary Braatz, with nearly 30 stating they had her blood type. The response left Braatz-Markert in tears.
One of those who saw the post was Paul Osterholm's wife, Janet Osterholm, who went to school with Nicole Braatz' sisters growing up. Since Common Grounds, Paul Osterholm, 58, and Braatz had only seen each other once or twice, but, when they learned about her health problems the Osterholms donated to her GoFundMe page. Then, on Memorial Day weekend, as Janet Osterholm scrolled through Facebook, the post crafted by Braatz and her family appeared.
"Honey, what do you think?" she asked of her husband. He read the post and knowing he was a blood match, due to donating bone marrow, he messaged Braatz, and then reached out to UW Health's Living Donor Program.
Having taught their children to give back, the Osterholms' children were supportive of his decision to pursue donation, including daughter, Maggie Osterholm, who around the same time, was trying to donate her own kidney to a man in Chilton. However, in the phone interview, she was told she could not donate due to being allergic to Tylenol, which meant her body would not be able to metabolize ibuprofen following the procedure.
A month later, Paul Osterholm received a call from UW Health Transplant Coordinator Leza Warnke and spoke on the phone for nearly an hour, before she asked if he could come down.
Going through a day of tests, he passed one after another. The only time he came close to failing was his blood pressure, as he was told he could drink coffee while waiting for his next test and downed two shots of espresso.
In case he wasn't a match for Braatz, he had agreed he would donate to somebody else to move her up the list as part of the match donation program. In this way, if Braatz matched someone in California and Osterholm did as well, a "flip," would be done, in which Osterholm's kidney would be sent to California, and Braatz' donor's would come to Wisconsin, said Maggie Osterholm.
Following the battery of tests, the team of doctors smiled as the Osterholms left. While only about seven percent of people who go through the process match, said Janet Osterholm, she could tell they saw something positive in his test results.
"I think you're coming back," she whispered.
Soon, UW Health called. Braatz and Osterholm had matched four out of six antigens; family members typically match from zero to two antigens.
"Rarely do people match six out of six, and they matched four out of six and they said that's just a bonus because it's less chance of rejection," said Braatz-Markert.
When Paul Osterholm received the news he was a match, his wife told him not to call Braatz until she was home from work. Not able to contain himself, he called her anyway, reaching her on the road. He told her to pull over, but she didn't have time before he shared the news.
She was completely surprised. Braatz hadn't gotten her hopes up, as other people, including stranger-but-now-like-family Sarah Harbridge, had gone through the process didn't end up matching.
"I thought you were just calling to talk," Braatz said to him.
Outside his house that day, looking over the lake as the sun set, Paul Osterholm felt compelled to take a picture of the sky. In it, the Osterholm and Braatz families see an angel.
"The spiritual journey has been remarkable. I feel blessed to be able to do this. We feel (honored) to give Nicole new life," Paul Osterholm said. "My wife and I met in La Crosse and she said 'who would've thought I would meet an Iowa farm boy, to be where we are today and be here to help Nicole?'"
The match was just the first touch of what the families see fate working a hand in. While officiating a wedding, Osterholm met Tia Jean, a, photographer, who, when reading Maggie Osterholm's posts about the transplant on Facebook, offered to take surprise photos of Paul Osterholm and Braatz, featuring green shirts and balloons, the color for kidney donation. Jean shared the story with a bride-to-be, who, while in need of a kidney herself, decided to raise money for Braatz.
The date of the transplant also carries significance. Given the option to choose Oct. 10 or Oct. 11 for the transplant, Paul Osterholm picked Oct. 10, so he could be home to watch his home state, Iowa, play college football, and be one day closer to recovery for when his son, Paul Osterholm Jr., and daughter-in-law, Katie Osterholm, have their first grandchild this month.
However, for the Braatz family, the day meant much more than football. When Braatz was 21, her father, Harold, passed away and her mom gave her his briefcase as she started Nicole's Sign Works. The pass code was his birthday: 10-10. Ever since, the number has been a constant in her life.
"I almost fell over," Braatz said. "They say when you get your kidney, it's like your second birthday and I get to share it on 10-10."
The number only grew in meaning as UW Health told her that while Paul Osterholm's surgery would take place at 8 a.m., hers would be at 10:10 a.m., the nurse saying it was new beginnings. On the way home, Braatz googled what the nurse had meant, finding that it was "a strong angel number."
"When you look it up, the very first line is, 'if you are consistently seeing 10-10, it's not a coincidence, your guardian angels are bringing you to new beginnings," said Mary Braatz. "It just seems like from the beginning there's been a reason for all of this: a reason happened why it happened to her and it's because (Paul has) come into our lives, and Sarah."
In the process, the families are growing closer as they move toward a permanent bond.
"My heart is overwhelming with love for this family. This family has been so loving and so kind," Paul Osterholm said. "She's going to be my sister."
"Mom finally got her boy," Nicole Braatz joked.
A symbol of that love is seen in the gift the Braatz family gave Paul Osterholm when they first met as a group. After giving bone marrow, Paul Osterholm used a bell to summon help. Adding to this tradition, the Braatz family gave him a personalized cow bell as a way to convey their gratitude, although it cannot be conveyed enough.
"I don't even know what to say to you half the time. What do you say to somebody (who does this)," Nicole Braatz to Paul Osterholm.
When they leave the hospital, they will pass a wall bearing the names of donors. Both Nicole Braatz and Paul Osterholm hope more people will have their names emblazoned here to help those who are in dialysis or will need to be.
"That's why you're always nice to people, because you never know," said Braatz-Markert.
"And friend them on Facebook," added Janet Osterholm.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Fond du Lac Reporter.