The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This couple divorced. Then she gave him her kidney.

Mary Ziegler after her kidney donation operation in October at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. (Linda Henrichs)

After 21 years of marriage, Bill Henrichs and Mary Ziegler — once high school sweethearts — concluded that they were no longer a good match.

The couple amicably divorced in 1995 and went their separate ways, but they continued to see each other at their kids' school and sporting events. Every once in a while, they’d run into each other at a restaurant or grocery store in their town of St. Cloud, Minn.

“Our interests were different,” said Ziegler, 62. “But we were always good friends, and family was a big part of our lives. Like a lot of other couples, we’d just grown apart.”

In February 2018, though, she and Henrichs learned they were a match in a different way.

Henrichs’s kidneys were failing, and he was in need of a transplant. After nearly 40 family members and friends were tested as possible donors, only one person turned out to be a perfect match: Ziegler.

There was never any question in Ziegler’s mind about whether she’d do it.

"I just immediately knew that it was going to happen,” she said. “Bill and I grew up together, we had two children together. And I knew that my children and grandchildren needed their father and grandfather in their lives.”

So on Oct. 16, more than four decades after they said “I do,” she and Henrichs, 62, were wheeled into an operating room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and one of Ziegler’s healthy kidneys was removed and given to her ex-husband. The transplant went smoothly, with Ziegler going home after three days and Henrichs after two weeks of tests and observation.

“The surgery went well, and the [new kidney] transplant is functioning well and continuing to improve as Mr. Henrichs recovers from the surgery,” said Andrew Bentall, a transplant nephrologist at the Mayo Clinic and one of Henrichs’s doctors.

They opened their home to dozens of young people. Then he learned he could give one more thing: A kidney.

The donation from Ziegler is important, said Bentall, because it allows Henrichs to avoid going through months or years of dialysis treatments while waiting for a kidney, a process that takes a toll on the body.

Henrichs said he was beyond grateful for his ex-wife’s compassion and generosity, but he also worried in the hours before the surgery. “What if something happens to you?” he told Ziegler. “What if something happens to me?”

“Mary told me, ‘If something happens, that’s the way it’s supposed to be,’ ” Henrichs recalled. “We talked about it for a bit, and she made me feel better. And of course I said, ‘Thank you.’ What she did is incredible. I’m still overcome when I wake up in the night and think about it.”

Henrichs and Ziegler were 14 when they met in a school activity bus in ninth grade after singing at a nursing home for extra credit in social studies.

“The bus was super-crowded,” Ziegler recalled. “And I ended up sitting on Bill’s lap.”

After that, the pair attended a few dances together and became involved in what was then Future Farmers of America in their small town of Princeton, Minn. “We became good friends and got along really well,” Henrichs said. “After we graduated [from high school], it seemed only natural to get married.”

“Bill played the bass guitar and was going to be a famous rock star,” Ziegler said, “and I was going to go to college.”

Life got in the way, though, when they realized that they’d have to get full-time jobs to pay their bills. She attended college for a year, then went to work for a beverage distributor, a job she has held for more than 40 years. Henrichs was in the communications business for years until switching to food catering before he retired.

About 14 years into their marriage, they decided to start a family, raising Matthew, now 32, and Macy, now 28.

“We married when we were 18, so I wasn’t ready to start a family until later,” Ziegler said. As she approached 40, she realized that she and Henrichs hadn’t been ready for something else, as well: marriage.

“We’d developed into who we really were,” she said. “And it was obvious that our interests were very different. It wasn’t that we didn’t like each other as people, we just no longer had that much in common.”

After a teenager died, his organs provided life to others — and a bigger family to his parents

While she was outdoorsy and enjoyed hiking and biking, she said, Henrichs was more content to spend a day at the library.

“I was also working a lot and spending too much time away from the family,” Henrichs said.

They decided that it was important to stay on friendly terms after their divorce to make life easier for their children, Ziegler said. She was thrilled when her ex met somebody new two years later and remarried. Linda Henrichs, a software marketing employee and mother of two grown daughters, is the best thing that ever happened to her high school sweetheart, Ziegler said.

Linda Henrichs, 57, has something to say about that.

“I’m thankful that Mary really gave me Bill twice — once via divorce and once via a kidney transplant,” she said.

“Mary’s generous spirit and willingness to help whoever needs it is wonderful, and we are lucky to have her and her family in our lives,” she added. “As Mary always says, ‘Bill never left the family, I just joined it.’ ”

Ziegler, who met a new hiking companion, Bill Moes, 11 years ago (they were married in 2016 in a ceremony catered by her former spouse), had been concerned about her ex-husband’s health for years. He found out he had diabetes shortly after their divorce.

"When I learned that he needed a new kidney, there wasn't any question that I would get tested,” she said.

Just a few days later, a call came from the Mayo Clinic to let her know that not only was she a strong match (she and Bill Henrichs share the same O blood type), but she also shares some antigens with him. Although their daughter also was considered a good possibility, Ziegler didn’t want to put her through the surgery, as she has two young children.

When Ziegler called Henrichs to let him know that she wanted to be his donor, he recalled, he felt overwhelmed.

“I could have been on the transplant list for three to six years,” he said. “Or I would have finally had to go through dialysis. Doctors had held me off from dialysis as long as they could, so it was a relief that Mary volunteered. But I was also worried about her coming through it okay.”

Ziegler didn’t share those concerns.

“I’m in good shape for my age. I do a lot of yoga, and I eat clean,” she said. “The only thing I was remotely concerned about was my down time, because I’m not a ‘sitting around’-type person.”

Just three weeks after the transplant, she was back to work and doing yoga — a quick turnaround considering that the average kidney donor needs a healing period of six to eight weeks, Ziegler said.

“I know that he and Linda are grateful, and I’m delighted that I could help,” she said. “I’d have to say that this entire experience has brought us all closer together.”

She and Henrichs hope that by sharing their story, other families will realize that divorce is not always a reason to cut off ties.

“Divorce is divorce, but there’s no reason to squabble,” Henrichs said. “There are lots of reasons why it’s important to get along.” He pauses and laughs. “Someday, you just might need a kidney.”

Read more:

The video of my dad appeared unexpectedly from a kind stranger. It gave me chills.

A father and his sons cut wood to fill 80 trucks. Then they brought it to homes that needed heat.