Paul Bauer’s Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with candy or cards or flowers.
It has to do with love and the gift of life from his wife, Leslie.
Paul was born with just one kidney.
Which, in itself, wouldn’t have been an issue, except it had been in slow, steady decline since he learned of his kidney disease at age 18.
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His lone kidney was functioning at only about 11 percent last summer.
Paul, now 52, had spent the past five years on a transplant list, but doctors said he wasn’t sick enough to receive a kidney from a deceased donor.
Talk of dialysis started last summer.
But Paul’s wife, Leslie, had a different idea.
She’d join The Great American Kidney Swap.
Here’s how it works: Leslie’s kidney might match someone in Atlanta. A friend or family member of the Atlanta recipient would, in turn, donate a kidney to a match somewhere else. The kidney-transplant chain continues from coast to coast, across the country, until the first recipient — in this case, Paul — finds a match.
On average, kidney-transplant chains span five to eight people, according to the Medical University of South Carolina.
The largest MUSC-involved chain spanned 25 hospitals and 35 transplants, so the Beaufort couple prepared to wait while doctors orchestrated the logistical symphony of kidney compatibility.
In September, Leslie took a health questionnaire — a type of test to determine if a would-be donor is healthy enough to give up the organ. She passed.
A dizzying array of other tests followed — EKGs and X-rays and 24-hour blood pressure monitoring and treadmill stress tests and dye injections — all to find someone whose kidney would match hers in the hopes that someone else’s would match her husband’s.
Just before Thanksgiving, a call came from MUSC.
Forget the exchange, a nurse told Leslie.
“You’re a match.”
An intersection of life stories
Paul and Leslie have more than their medical compatibility in common.
Both have five siblings.
They each, oddly, have an older brother named Rick.
They both are the baby of the family, No. 6 in line.
Both have two children from first marriages.
All four children competed in swimming at rival high schools, so Paul and Leslie may have crossed at swim meets, but they can’t say for sure.
In 2013, both were single.
Both lived in Stafford, Va.
Both were on OKCupid.
He messaged her first.
From friends to more
They met at Mick’s.
“Or was it called Nick’s?” Leslie asks.
Neither can remember the precise name of the bar.
That’s because it wasn’t a date.
Just two new friends meeting for the first time.
Leslie had divorced in 2009, had spent several years casually dating and was looking for something serious.
Paul was just getting out of a 22-year marriage.
Leslie decided they’d be better off as friends but agreed to meet him and offer some advice on entering the dating scene post-divorce.
She was late, he remembers.
“It clearly wasn’t a date!” Leslie countered.
As if to prove it, she came straight from work in her jeans and T-shirt.
They planned on one drink. It turned into two.
Appetizers came next. Dinner followed.
“Because he wouldn’t stop talking,” Leslie said.
He went on for close to two hours. She got in about 15 minutes.
His lack of a second kidney somehow came up.
“It was kind of a little overshare,” she admitted.
She mentioned her plan to move to South Carolina. After years of compromising in marriage, she wanted to do something for herself, and the beaches beckoned.
Paul listened to her explain how the winters would be warmer, the pace of life a little slower. He had spent almost his entire life in Virginia, and yet he thought, “A fresh start. That sounds nice.”
Life in the Lowcountry
Under an arch of Spanish moss, the couple exchanged vows in July 2015.
They bought a ranch home on a one-acre property in Beaufort.
He works remotely from home as a construction estimator.
She’s a school counselor at Okatie Elementary.
They spend weekends walking the beach on Hunting Island or with friends from the Beaufort Sail and Power Squadron, a local boating group. They’re renovating a guest cottage with a bedroom loft and shiplap walls, a nod to one of their favorite shows, “Fixer Upper.”
They weathered Hurricane Matthew in Beaufort, their first shared storm. A water oak fell into a corner of their house, but they didn’t care.
This was their second act.
A call for more kidney donations
Think of kidneys as your body’s toilet. Their job is to flush excess fluid and waste from your bloodstream.
“When you don’t have kidney function, you basically have dirty blood,” he said. “And it wears you down.”
When Leslie came home from work over the past year, she often found Paul resting in the recliner. He was up to three naps a day.
Almost 5,000 people died in 2014 waiting for a kidney, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Another 100,000 are on the waiting list.
Only about 18,000 patients receive a kidney each year, but this number could grow as the popularity of kidney-transplant chains has soared in recent years, said Dr. Prabhakar Baliga, one of the Bauers’ transplant surgeons at MUSC.
Paul’s 65-year-old brother was also a match, but doctors preferred Leslie’s because she is 15 years younger.
Her surgery represents one of about 2,000 kidneys transplanted from an unrelated donor each year, Baliga said.
Pick a date, MUSC told the couple.
The Bauers penciled Jan. 25 on the calendar.
Surgery and life beyond it
The romantic image of recovering side-by-side in the same hospital room was quashed by the nurses.
To speed recovery, they placed Paul in Room 617 and assigned Leslie to 603.
If the couple wanted to see the other, they’d have to get out of bed and walk.
There would be no Jell-O sharing. No joint channel-flipping.
Tethered to an IV, Leslie hobbled down the long hospital hallway in her gown, her back hunched to relieve some of the pain in her abdomen.
She arrived at his room and poked her head through the door.
Paul’s face was puffy. His fingers had swelled like sausages. He gained 20 pounds in water weight overnight as the doctors flushed him with liquids to see how well his wife’s kidney was working in him.
He’d spend another two days in the hospital, another week in Charleston driving back and forth for daily appointments. Several months of recovery lay ahead of him, but Leslie did not think of that on her first visit.
“Hi, honey,” she said.
Still loopy from the anesthesia, Paul said all he could think of at the time: “Thank you.”