KIMBALL, Minn. — For years, third-grade teacher Erin Durga and the custodian at her school exchanged small talk whenever he stopped by her classroom.
The encounters often were brief. Patrick Mertens was, after all, a man of few words.
So it wasn’t until he had to leave school early three days a week for dialysis, that Durga and her fellow teachers at Kimball Elementary School learned that the mild-mannered custodian’s kidneys were failing.
To help, they raised money to offset transportation costs to nearby St. Cloud, where Mertens received dialysis treatments. When a Facebook post by his daughter noted that none of his relatives could donate a kidney, Durga stepped up and offered one of hers.
“I knew in my heart that I could do this for someone else,” she said this week. “Pat is a wonderful person and I can’t imagine him not being around.”
Amid the threat of a dire global pandemic, Durga’s gift brought hope.
“She’s an angel,” Mertens said recently after finishing his work in the quiet and largely empty elementary school that recently switched to distance learning because of COVID-19.
Durga, who lives several miles away from this central Minnesota city of 800 people, shrugs off the praise.
“I’m no superhero or angel,” she said. “I’m just a person who did the right thing.”
Across the country, more than 95,000 people a year are waiting for kidney transplants. Only about 9,000 donations are available from deceased donors, which means some in need die before they get transplants, according to national statistics.
Mertens, 64, learned in 2003 that high creatinine levels indicated his kidneys “were bad.” Fourteen years later, his kidneys were failing and a transplant was needed.
The wait for a deceased kidney donor, he learned, would likely be five to seven years.
Dialysis robbed him of time with family and friends, but it kept him feeling OK, he said. He preferred not to dwell on statistics that showed the longer a person is on dialysis, the greater the risk of complications and death.
“Pat was working and quietly suffering,” said Annie Doyle, living donor transplant coordinator at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center.
Doyle encouraged Mertens and his family to share his story. Sometimes people respond, raising money to offset medical costs or helping with transportation and meals, she said. Sometimes, someone offers one of their kidneys.
Living donors, who are medically evaluated and deemed healthy, can lead normal lives because the remaining kidney will increase in size to compensate for the loss of the other.
For a recipient, a donor kidney from someone who is alive usually functions more quickly and works better than one from a deceased donor, Doyle said.
Although there are some altruistic people who will donate to anyone on a waiting list, most living donors give to someone they know, Doyle said. If they end up not being compatible, the donor can participate in a paired exchange program to garner a match.
Since 1963, more than half