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A third-grade teacher in Minnesota donated a kidney to her school’s custodian

Erin Durga donated a kidney to her school's custodian, Patrick Mertens. (Lynda Mertens)

Patrick Mertens needed a kidney, and, feeling desperate, his daughter, Kayla, posted a request on Facebook in January.

Mertens, 64, a school custodian, hadn’t bothered asking his co-workers at Kimball Elementary School in Kimball, Minn., as he searched for a donor. He didn’t want to inconvenience any of the teachers at the school, and he thought they had already done enough for him by setting up a fundraiser to support his dialysis.

But when Erin Durga, a third-grade teacher at the school, saw the Facebook post, she knew she wanted to help. So she reached out and after some tests learned that she was a match. It was decided.

The Mertens were floored.

“Who expects a teacher to give their kidney to a custodian?” said Mertens’s wife, Lynda.

When Durga was a child, her father was a school band director for 30 years. As a piece of fatherly advice, he told her the first people she should befriend in a school are the building workers. She took his advice to heart.

Durga and Mertens first met after Durga moved to Fairhaven, Minn., in 2011 and began teaching at Kimball Elementary.

Every evening, while Durga finished work, Mertens — who also started that year as a custodian — cleaned her classroom after he was finished with his other tasks, including sweeping the cafeteria and replenishing toilet paper.

About a month into the school year, Mertens’s cleaning sessions turned into chats with Durga about their children. Durga learned that Mertens’s wife ran a day-care facility, and that’s where she sent her son, Rhone. At the day care, youngsters called Mertens “Papa.”

Since Rhone’s birth in 2009, Durga, 38, was feeling overwhelmingly fortunate and felt an urge to perform a meaningful act for someone. She considered serving as a surrogate after learning that the daughter of a co-worker struggled to become pregnant. But it turned out that she had an opportunity for generosity right in front of her.

Mertens realized how serious his health situation was in February 2018, when he woke up in the middle of the night in pain. After a visit to the emergency room, he learned that his kidneys were failing. His doctor told him that he needed a new kidney, and that finding a match probably would take three to 10 years, Mertens said. Lynda Mertens said she was told that her husband probably would die if he didn’t get a new kidney within five years.

More than 93,000 people in the United States are waiting for a kidney transplant, according to the Living Kidney Donors Network. Worse, Mertens has Type O blood, the hardest to match, said Annie Doyle, living-donor coordinator at M Health Fairview.

“To watch your loved one go through that, it’s just so heartbreaking,” Lynda Mertens said. “They can’t do the things that they used to do.”

Patrick Mertens began kidney dialysis in April 2019, but he felt fatigued most of the time and would go to bed each night around 7. Kimball Elementary employees supported him, setting up a fundraising event in January for his treatment. But he still couldn’t find a donor. That’s when his daughter posted on Facebook.

When Durga saw the post, she believed she could help Mertens, despite not knowing her blood type.

“I felt in my heart, from the very beginning, that this was my thing,” said Durga, who has three children and raises chickens and rabbits. “Once I decided that, yes, I’m going to donate to Pat, I felt really good about it, and I was at peace with it throughout the entire thing.”

She had grown fond of the Mertenses, often bringing daisies and roses from her garden to them when she picked up her children — Rhone, 11; Dean, 9; and Rosemarie, 7 — when they were in day care.

To determine whether she was a match, Durga completed tests from her home, because hospitals limited non-coronavirus patients because of the pandemic. In June, she learned that she was a match.

Upon learning the news that summer evening, Durga jumped out of her white minivan in front of the Mertenses’ home in South Haven, Minn., wearing a black tank top that read “DONOR” on the front. Mertens said that he usually isn’t emotional, but that he cried and hugged her. Durga also created a GoFundMe for Mertens’s dialysis treatment.

Less than a month later, on July 3, Mertens was nervous driving to M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis. When he arrived, though, Durga’s composure calmed his nerves, he said. Before her surgery on the fourth floor, Durga insisted on speaking with Mertens. Hospital staff members didn’t comply right away, but after multiple requests, she was able to talk to him and assure him that the transplant would be successful. She was right.

When they spoke again that night after surgery, Mertens couldn’t stop calling Durga an angel.

“I told Erin, when I first woke up out of surgery, it was nothing I’ve ever felt before,” he said. “It was a new life.”

Durga and Mertens recovered in time to begin the school year in August, when students welcomed Mertens with a poster they each signed. Whenever she has a chance, Durga goes out of her way to find Mertens — usually hard at work near a bathroom or the cafeteria — to chat. Durga said their bond grew stronger after surgery. Almost every day, they check on each other, especially now in the pandemic when they know many people are struggling with mental health issues.

Mertens has returned to his favorite activities, such as deer hunting, building bird houses and driving his red Ram truck. He’s more thankful to spend time with his three children, seven grandchildren and his yellow Labrador, knowing his luck could have gone the other way.

Kimball Elementary shifted to online learning Nov. 16 after some staff members tested positive for the coronavirus, but Mertens is still required to come in and sanitize the school. Durga was home quarantining for two weeks after a possible coronavirus exposure, but she went back to work this week in the building, where she prefers to teach virtually.

Mertens sent Durga flowers at Thanksgiving and still calls her to thank her, but he acknowledges that he is at a loss to truly express his gratitude. His wife tries to find the words.

“She’s our miracle, our angel,” Lynda Mertens said. “We’ll forever be grateful for her.”

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