IU Health University Hospital

Love Never Fails: He Married His Kidney Donor

Patient Stories

February 14, 2019

Their wedding was like a fairytale. Chelsea Clair was 22, when she first met Kyle Froelich, 19. He needed a kidney and from the first time she laid eyes on him, Chelsea knew she would give him one of hers.

It’s been said that “time flies like an arrow.” And for Kyle and Chelsea Froelich that arrow came straight from Cupid’s bow. Their story is one of profound love. It’s a story that transcends time. It’s a story that began ten years ago.

It started with a mutual friend Peggy Verhonik. Separately, she gave Kyle a ticket to the National Hot Rod Association national drag race and also gave a ticket to Chelsea.

“She said ‘there’s this kid I know and we’re trying to raise funds for his medical expenses. Will you pass out flyers?’” Chelsea recalls. She passed out the flyers and she read the flyers. “My mom was as single mom and dialysis was expensive. Friends were helping us and raising awareness that I needed a kidney,” said Kyle. He spotted Chelsea in the stands and introduced himself.

“She was young and pretty,” said Kyle. “He was cute. I was drawn to him and from the first time I met him I knew I was going to give him my kidney,” said Chelsea.

A couple weeks after that chance meeting Chelsea went to a car show, suspecting Kyle would be there. She had one burning question: “How do I become your kidney donor?” The story goes that Chelsea let Kyle drive her new Camaro to the car wash and he scuffed the rims. But that didn’t discourage Chelsea. She was determined to follow through with testing to become his donor.

At the time, Chelsea had a two-year-old daughter, Aby and was going through a divorce. “We checked my daughter’s blood type first. If she was my blood type I wouldn’t have donated,” said Chelsea. “She is her father’s blood type.”

Chelsea in fact, is Type O positive; Kyle is Type O negative. They were a match. Their friendship grew as they prepared for the transplant and at 4 a.m., April 1, 2010 – six months after they met – Kyle drove about 30 minutes away to Chelsea’s house to pick her up. Kyle’s mom, Paula Hoffman, then drove them to IU Health University Hospital where Chelsea would give Kyle her kidney. Chelsea was in the care of surgeon Dr. John Powelson; Kyle was in the care of Dr. William C. Goggins.

“Our operating rooms were close enough that they wheeled me by her after surgery so I could talk to her,” said Kyle. “We were on separate floors during recovery but I made them put me in a wheelchair and take me to her room.”

***

February 14 is National Organ Donor Day – a time to increase awareness of organ donation and the lives it can save. More than 120,000 people are awaiting an organ transplant every day. One person can donate up to eight lifesaving organs. In 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services reported four in five organs came from deceased donors; one in five came from living donors. Ninety-five percent of U.S. adults support organ donation but only about half are registered as donors. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) ranks IU Health as the 11th largest transplant program in the nation. The transplant team works hard to honor the gift of life given by donors.

What a lot of people didn’t know about Kyle and Chelsea’s story is that Chelsea understood how organ donation saves lives. Chelsea’s father died four years before Kyle’s transplant. “He needed a bone marrow transplant and we couldn’t find a donor. “I felt like if I wanted someone to be a bone marrow donor for my dad then why wouldn’t I want to give to someone else? It was my way of helping,” said Chelsea.

Some thought Chelsea’s decision was random. But in truth, she gave it much thought. She was sure. Kyle had already been through the highs and lows of expectation. “I already had about 65 people tested and I’d been on dialysis for about two and half years. In the back of my mind, I thought she probably wasn’t my blood type,” said Kyle.

They chose April 1 – April Fool’s Day for the transplant – because, like the blood type, it matched their personalities, said Chelsea. “He’s always made me laugh and we thought this would be a fun day to celebrate,” said Chelsea. Every year, they use the anniversary of the transplant as an excuse to throw a party known as “Sparkypalooza” — because Kyle’s family named the kidney “Sparky.”

***

That date became just one of many that they celebrate.

On Oct. 12, 2013 in an outdoor ceremony at the Danville Conservation Club Kyle and Chelsea recited their wedding vows: “I offer you my hand, my heart and my soul, as I know they will be safe with you.” About 100 friends and family members attended their wedding on that beautiful warm sunny day. Five men stood by their side wearing gray tuxedos and five women carried dark purple flowers.

Media around the world reported the nuptials - Canada, England, Jamaica and Australia. USA Today called it “one of the five most uplifting stories of the week,” and Time Magazine referred to it as “a story straight out of a Hollywood movie.” There were more requests for guest appearances that they simply couldn’t fulfill – primetime network news and talk shows. “Her Facebook still has thousands of requests and questions,” said Kyle.

On the surface, it seemed like a fairy tale – a stranger donates her kidney and then marries the man who needed the life-saving operation. But Chelsea and Kyle know that even the most star-studded romances have their challenges. For the Froelich’s it’s been Kyle’s health.

When he was 12, Kyle went in for a routine sports physical and a urine test showed signs of kidney disease. By the time he was a junior at Brownsburg High School he was on dialysis. It was his senior year when was listed for transplant.

Over the past six years, the Froelich’s Danville home has become full. Chelsea’s daughter, Aby is 11; and together they have a son Wyatt, 6. They share their ranch-style country home with two dogs. Chelsea is a cosmetologist; Kyle works as a freight conductor for the CSX railroad.

They enjoy get always to Las Vegas and family vacations to Florida. They attend a lot of country music concerts, meet for lunch dates, and spend time cheering on their kids in football, baseball, and basketball. They recently bought property in Putnam County where they hope to raise cattle.

“Before we started dating we talked about having cattle and raising our kids in the country,” said Kyle. “I always said I’d accomplish this goal before I was 30.”

Kyle is 28 and Chelsea is 31 and in the back of their minds is: “What’s next?”

In December, Kyle went back on the transplant list. A year ago he became sick but dismissed going to the doctor.

“I thought it was just a cold but it turned into bacterial pneumonia and a virus that attacked my kidney,” said Kyle. He spent ten days in the hospital and 30 days off work.

“Kyle has IgA nephropathy. While it rarely occurs in the transplanted kidney patients, it did in him,” said Dr. Tim E. Taber, a nephrologist at IU Health who is both Kyle and Chelsea’s doctor. IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease, is a kidney disease that occurs when an antibody called immunoglobulin A (IgA) lodges in the kidneys. Over time it cause the kidneys to stop filtering wastes from the blood. “Since Kyle is an ‘O’ blood type his wait could be about five years for a new kidney,” said Dr. Taber.

As he and Chelsea sat in the hospital waiting for their regular check up, Kyle described that wait for a kidney. Chelsea has a yearly follow up; Kyle goes every three months for a check up and has labs done every three weeks. Chelsea joins him for every appointment.

“It’s a waiting game that could take up to seven years. We’re back looking for another donor and most of my friends and family members have already been tested and we know they’re not a match,” said Kyle. “I don’t have another kidney to give him but I wish I did. I’d do it all again,” said Chelsea, who admits she worries about her husband’s health.

And while they wait, Kyle’s is fighting to stay clear of dialysis.

“Our goal is to avoid it because it would mean missing work,” said Kyle. “This time around it’s different. I have a wife and kids. I’m trying to maintain until I can get another transplant. I look at this completely different than 99 percent of the population. I don’t see it as a problem. It has made us closer and I have faith in the process.”

-- By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

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