Since last June, former college athlete Matt Stromer has been dealing with the effects of end-stage kidney failure while hoping to find an organ donor.
His family members were unable, for various reasons, to donate an organ, so Stromer, 34, and his wife have been praying someone else — a friend, acquaintance or stranger — would step forward.
Stromer’s name was also on a waiting list for deceased donors, but that type of transplant typically isn’t as effective. Also, on average, the wait is more than six years.
Compounding the family’s stress has been the fact that Beaumont Hospital officials, in charge of Stromer’s transplant case, weren’t allowed to tell them how the organ donation process was going because of privacy laws protecting donors.
Instead, hospital staff informed Matt and his wife, Jessica Stromer, that the next update — if they were lucky — would be a call from the hospital notifying them a matching donor had been found.
In the meantime, they would just have to wait, wonder and worry.
Months passed. Then, on the afternoon of April 2, the phone rang. Everyone, including 21/2-year-old son, Odin, was home. Matt Stromer saw “Beaumont” on the caller ID and figured there was a problem.
No one from Beaumont ever called. Did he get pulled from the transplant list for some reason? His heart sank as he picked up the phone.
But the voice on the other end delivered the best possible news: The hospital had found a matching kidney donor.
The Stromers recalled later that the call came on Good Friday, the day before Matt’s 34th birthday.
“I was almost in a state of disbelief — I didn’t know what to say,” Stromer said. “I was extremely excited. It was a thrilling feeling.”
His donor has expressed a desire to remain anonymous, not wanting any recognition for their generous gift of life. The Stromers said they wish they could reach out to say thank you, but absolutely respect the donor’s decision.
“I have so much gratitude toward this person,” Stromer said. “They’re giving me a second shot at life.”
“We have this hero out there, and we can’t thank them enough,” Jessica Stromer, 35, said. “We can plan for our future now, knowing Matt can regain his life. It’s like an angel has been watching over Matt.”
Before the transplant surgery can take place, Stromer and his donor have to undergo a final antibody test. In addition, Stromer has to complete his second COVID-19 vaccine shot, set for April 20, so he can stay at the hospital.
All things considered, it looks like the transplant will take place sometime in May, the couple said. If the procedure is successful, the new kidney could last 15 to 20 years.
Although the Stromers worry about such “what ifs” as Matt’s body rejecting the kidney, those concerns take second place to the rising hope in their hearts for the future.
“We know the donor is making a great sacrifice, but this is such a weight off our shoulders,” Jessica Stromer said. “It’s an incredible gift that gives somebody their life back.”
From athlete to patient
In the early 2000s, Matt Stromer was a catcher on the Marauders’ varsity baseball team at Ovid-Elsie High School. Future wife Jessica Robison was a cheerleader.
It didn’t take long after they met for the two to become sweethearts. Their romance survived attending different colleges. He played baseball at Siena Heights University in Adrian on a full athletic scholarship while she went to Central Michigan University.
They got married in 2012.
Today, Matt Stromer is a corporate account executive for the Michigan Health Information Network. Jessica Stromer works with Michigan school districts as a claims representative for CCMSI in Lansing.
The pair were excited to purchase their first home in Owosso, off North Chipman Street, several years ago. When Odin — now a toddler who knows all of his colors and numbers, and the names of dozens of animated action characters — was born, the couple’s happiness was complete.
About a year ago, Matt Stromer began feeling tired. He was still able to play with Odin and do yard work, so he didn’t think much of it. But then he began to feel tired for longer spells.
It wasn’t like Stromer, who was still as fit as the college athlete he once was, to feel so fatigued. Finally in early June he saw his doctor, who ordered lab work.
When the results came in, Matt Stromer was told to go to the emergency room at Memorial Healthcare in Owosso immediately.
Stromer’s hemoglobin level was 3.4 — dangerously below the normal level of 16 to 18. That meant his body was being deprived of oxygen, explaining his constant lethargy. Eventually, lack of oxygen leads to organs shutting down completely and death.
“Everybody at Memorial was astonished that I could even function,” he said.
His wife knew the situation was serious when, despite the then-raging coronavirus pandemic, she and Matt’s mother were summoned to the hospital. An exception to the no-visitors rule was made so the women could stay at his bedside.
“We didn’t realize how serious the situation was at first,” Jessica Stromer said. “Then everything kind of escalated.”
Matt Stromer was rushed by ambulance to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor. Tests determined that both of his kidneys had shut down. He was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, a kidney disease.
“It was hard to process,” Jessica Stromer said. “I thought, ‘What can I do?’ Is Matt going to see Odin graduate or even grow up?”
Doctors said if Stromer had waited just one more day to check in to Memorial, it probably would have been too late to save his life.
Dealt a ‘crappy hand’
When Stromer received his diagnosis, he thought of his father, Scott Stromer, who suffers from the same disease.
Although there is no proof IgA nephropathy can be inherited, a father and son contracting the same rare kidney ailment struck Matt Stromer as more than a coincidence.
“Will Odin have it in the future? It’s something we’re dealing with,” Stromer said.
Instead, the doctor said, Stromer simply had been “dealt a really crappy hand in life,” which didn’t make him feel any better. He knew, from his father’s experience, that there was no cure for the disease.
He knew all that could be done was keep his kidneys functioning at 8 or 9 percent artificially through dialysis — and find a transplant donor as quickly as possible.
Stromer knew that because his mother, Doris Stromer, had fortunately been a match for his father. She generously gave him one of her kidneys in a transplant operation in 2009.
“I knew it was really tough to go through dialysis and I knew a transplant would give him his life back,” Doris Stromer said. “Yeah, I was scared, but it turned out great.”
Not only did Scott Stromer recover enough to return to work, Doris Stromer spent only a few days in the hospital and was back to her old self within a couple of weeks, she said.
“I was a little tired in the beginning, but that passed,” she said. “I don’t feel any different than I did before. I’m still working. I still have an active life. There were no ill effects.”
But her help back then left her without an extra kidney to give to her son now. Matt Stromer’s brothers were excluded from a transplant, since there is a possibility they have the same kidney disease. Jessica Stromer and her family members have the wrong blood type to donate.
During Matt Stromer’s month-long stay at U-M Hospital, he underwent hemodialysis on a machine. A port inserted in his chest, he continued hemodialysis after his release, going to a clinic three times a week, for six hours a stretch.
Just recently, he was able to switch to peritoneal dialysis, which takes 11 hours every day but can be done at home, and he undergoes physical therapy. Still, Stromer has only 2 percent kidney function.
Most days, he has no strength. On a good day, he might be able to play with his son for a while but it doesn’t take much activity to deplete his energy.
“Going from a fit college athlete to low kidney function — it’s hard,” Stromer said. “It’s hard all around.”
It’s hard on Jessica Stromer, too, who carries the full load of running the household and caring for a young child. One of the few benefits of the pandemic has been that she can work from home, making her available when her husband needs her.
“It’s hard on all of us. Odin’s getting more active and on a bad day, I’m a single parent,” she said. “But I’m trying to focus on the positives, like when Matt was able to walk around the block, stand on one foot or on his tiptoes for the first time again. They are simple things we all take for granted.
“Matt’s always been so active and athletic. I want to see him regain all of that.”
As the chances of finding a living donor among family members dwindled, the Stromers braced themselves for a long wait for a deceased donor.
The statistics weren’t reassuring. According to Gift of Life Michigan, more than 108,000 people are currently waiting for an organ transplant nationally, and a new person is added to the waiting list every 10 minutes.
In Michigan last year, 374 organ donors resulted in 1,048 lifesaving organ transplants. Another 1,549 donors provided the gift of tissue for thousands of patients in need. So far this year, Michigan donors have provided 196 organs and many tissues for transplant.
However, as of March 1, the number of Michigan patients waiting for a kidney transplant was 2,057.
The Stromers, as difficult as it is for them to ask for help, considered making a public appeal. But now they don’t have to.
Second shot at life
The surprise call announcing a living donor match, coming less than a year after the diagnosis, has transformed the Stromer household.
The boxes of dialysis solution piled up in the living room are no longer a big deal. Eleven hours a day on a tube is suddenly doable, because it’s coming to an end.
Matt Stromer can’t wait to teach Odin how to play baseball. He and his wife can start thinking about having another baby.
But as excited as they are about the upcoming kidney transplant and as grateful as they are to the anonymous donor, the Stromers can’t help but think about those who continue to wait.
“We really want to make people aware of the need for organ donors,” Jessica Stromer said. “Anybody could be a donor for anybody.”
“It’s such a gift to be able to give someone their life back,” Doris Stromer said.
To learn more about organ donations or to register as a donor, call the Michigan Organ Donor Registry at (888) 767-6424.