The couple from New Zealand figured they each had a kidney to spare. So why not give one away?

That's what Gerard and Lyn Murphy decided when they heard that a Minnesota friend needed a kidney transplant.

"If you see a butterfly stuck in a cobweb, you're not going to leave it there," said Gerard Murphy as he packed up to leave Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis on Thursday.

Three days earlier, he had been wheeled into surgery, where doctors removed one of his kidneys and transplanted it into Kathy Kehrberg of White Bear Township.

Over the past two decades, the Murphys and the Kehrbergs have exchanged Christmas letters and met up every couple of years as members of a long-distance biking group. It's a friendship in which one might buy a beer for another.

Now the search for an organ donation has brought them closer.

A decade ago, an autoimmune disease damaged Kehrberg's kidneys. Last year, her kidney function was down to 10 percent and her doctor suggested that she needed a new one.

A likely five- to eight-year wait for a cadaver kidney might have come too late for the 72-year-old woman. A living donor would be best — not only would it be more expedient, but the quality of the organ would be better.

At 72, her husband, Kent, was too old to donate, and other family members couldn't. So her husband put out the word on Facebook and at their church. When it came time to write last year's Christmas letter, Kent Kehrberg ended the e-mail with a simple statement: His wife needed a kidney transplant.

When the news popped into Gerard and Lyn Murphy's e-mail inbox more than 8,000 miles away, they hit the reply button. They said they'd each volunteer to donate when they returned to the United States for a 4,225-mile bike ride from Yorktown, Va., to Florence, Ore., from June to September.

Giving up a kidney isn't that big of a deal, the two said. "You have two kidneys, and one is a spare," Lyn Murphy said.

Organ donors needed

"There are a lot of people out there who need a kidney transplant, and there aren't that many kidneys that are available through deceased donors or living donors," said Dr. Paul Stahler, one of the two transplant surgeons involved in the Murphy-Kehrberg operation. Of more than 125,000 people waiting for one or more organ donations in the United States, 104,000 need a kidney, Stahler said, citing information from United Network for Organ Sharing.

The donation offer from friends so far away took Kathy Kehrberg by surprise. "We said, 'Are they nuts?' It just seemed unreal," she said. "I felt most unworthy."

But she also felt grateful. Still, she didn't want to get her hopes up too high. Although the Murphys underwent some medical tests in New Zealand, more were needed to confirm whether Lyn, 62, and Gerard, 64, would be a match and healthy enough to donate.

When the results came in, they both were a match.

And not surprising, they're healthy. The couple, married for 42 years, exude strength and resilience. Lyn has completed six Ironman triathlons, each involving a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Gerard has finished four. Added to that are the thousands of miles they've biked up and down mountains, across deserts, through cities and over vast landscapes in New Zealand, Australia, Europe, South America, Canada and the United States.

Husband stepped up

Although both were fit to donate a kidney, they agreed that Gerard would step up first. At 64, he figured he should donate before he got much older. If his remaining kidney failed later, Lyn could donate one of hers to him.

And if her husband doesn't need it, Lyn plans to donate a kidney to another needy recipient before she turns 65.

Donating to a stranger is what "we refer to as an altruistic donor," Stahler said. Abbott Northwestern sees fewer than five a year, he said.

But sometimes, news about such donations creates a chain of donations with 30 or more people willing to give an organ, Stahler said. "We would love it" if people wanted to line up to donate, he added.

For the donor, the organ is removed via laparoscopic surgery, requiring small incisions. "You're typically in the hospital for three days and recover for several weeks at home," Stahler said. "You're able to go back to work. You have normal kidney function. And the added benefit is that you saved someone's life."

Although there's a small risk of developing renal disease later, studies show the risk generally is lower for donors than those in the general population, Stahler said, noting that donors tend to be among the healthiest people.

As the Murphys stopped to chat with Kehrberg in her hospital room, Gerard dismissed the idea that giving up his kidney was remarkable.

But emotion bubbles to the surface when Kathy and Kent Kehrberg talk about the lifesaving donation.

"I feel blessed," Kathy said, wiping tears from her eyes. It seems almost impossible to find the words and ways to repay the gift, she said.

From the Murphys' point of view, there is no need.

"You don't owe us a thing," Gerard said.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788