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From Stranger to Life-Saver: Kidney Donor Travels 1,200 Miles to Meet Grateful Recipient

May 13, 2024 - A Nebraska woman traveled to New Jersey to meet the recipient of her life-saving kidney donation.

May 13, 2024

Last year, Jill Pinkelman donated her kidney to a stranger – a military veteran who needed a transplant. This month, the Nebraska woman met the grateful recipient who lives 1,200 miles away in New Jersey.

On May 10, the pair united at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, N.J. That’s where Robert “Budd” Springer received the life-saving gift of Pinkelman’s kidney on March 23, 2023.

“Jill didn't know me, but she wanted to donate to a veteran. That just touched my heart,” said Springer, a retired lieutenant colonel who served 36 years in the New Jersey Army National Guard.

Pinkelman decided to become a kidney donor after reading about Donor Outreach for Veterans (DOVE), an N.J.-based organization that matches veterans with living donors, nationwide. 

“If you’re a veteran in need, you should be supported by your country and by other people,” said Pinkelman. “I thought, ‘I could do something like that.’”

DOVE’s founder and executive director, Sharon Kreitzer, agreed wholeheartedly.

“It’s about creating communities that support each other,” said the former social worker and kidney donor. “Veterans, especially, have given so much and asked for so little in return.”

The Need
About 38 million Americans – one in ten – have chronic kidney disease, although 90% don’t know it. The condition often leads to kidney failure and the need for a transplant.

Today, 92,000 people are on the U.S. waiting list for a kidney. An estimated 12 die each day before a donated kidney becomes available.

“Many people don’t realize they can donate a kidney while they’re alive. So it’s really important to get the word out and to connect people who wouldn’t otherwise find each other, through organizations like DOVE,” said Anita Mehrotra, MD, Springer’s transplant nephrologist (kidney doctor) at Virtua Advanced Transplant and Organ Health.

Importantly, a kidney from a living donor is generally healthier and lasts longer than a kidney from a deceased person, noted Christine Palms, MS, RN, senior vice president of tertiary services and planning for Virtua.

“People only need one healthy kidney, so the donor’s health is not compromised by the donation,” explained Palms, who oversees the organ transplant program.

Veteran’s Kidney Journey
Like many patients, Budd Springer was surprised when he was diagnosed with kidney failure five years ago.

The grandfather of nine had been enjoying an active retirement from both the National Guard and his job as facilities director for Cape May County. Springer and wife Lorraine travelled frequently, and he’d begun working for Habitat for Humanity.

“I wasn’t feeling well but I had no idea it was my kidneys,” recalled the Cape May Courthouse, N.J., resident. “A routine blood test diagnosed it.”

After his diagnosis, Springer worked closely with doctors to slow the disease’s progression through diet, exercise, and medication. He was also evaluated by the Virtua team for kidney transplantation, and was placed on the waiting list for a deceased-donor kidney transplant. Eventually, though, he needed dialysis.

“You can't live a normal lifestyle on dialysis,” said the 73-year-old. “It's very invasive, it's very uncomfortable. It really restricts your ability to travel and do things.”

Springer hoped for a transplant to restore his health. But he’d been unable to find a living donor, and felt uncertain about his future.

“I just want to spend time with my grandchildren,” he said. “I want to be there to teach them, to help them through life. And for my children, even though they're grown up. And I want to spend quality time with my wife, especially.”

Matching with Nebraska Donor
Springer’s Virtua transplant coordinator encouraged him to contact DOVE, which matched him with Pinkelman, from the tiny town of Newcastle in northeast Nebraska. They each underwent extensive testing to ensure their blood and tissue were compatible, among other health criteria.

Springer learned of the match in a Target parking lot, while heading to a family outing.

“It was shocking and it was a funny situation,” recalled Springer, whose son-in-law was behind the wheel. Springer’s wife, youngest daughter, and 3-year-old grandson were also in the car.

“I answered the phone and they said, ‘This is DOVE, and we have a donor for you. You’re going to have a new kidney on March 23rd’ – which was just two weeks later.”

The vehicle quickly filled with laughter and joyful tears. “It was just amazing,” said Springer.

Donor’s Gift of Life
Jill Pinkelman learned about living kidney donation from a 2022 story in Woman’s Day magazine. Written by a DOVE kidney donor, the piece was titled “She Saved a Stranger’s Life.

“I read the article in November, and by January I was getting tested,” said Pinkelman, 50.

Her husband, Daryl Johannsen, was immediately supportive of Pinkelman’s plans, noting that both are volunteer first-responders.

“I’m a firefighter and Jill is an EMT. We’re about saving lives,” he said.

Pinkelman also was motivated by the sacrifices of veterans she knows, including friends who’ve struggled with PTSD after serving in Iraq.

“I’d want to do anything I could to help them,” she said. “People give a lot of lip service about supporting our troops, but how many do something about it?”

Additionally, Pinkelman’s father served in the National Guard. He was also a longtime volunteer firefighter, as is her brother. And an uncle has chronic kidney disease.

In fact, volunteers saved Pinkelman’s life when she was hit by a car and gravely injured at age 15.

“If it hadn’t been for volunteer responders, I wouldn’t be here,” said Pinkelman, who needed years of treatment for multiple injuries.

“I want to give back for all the people who’ve helped me throughout my life,” she explained.

The Transplant
The Virtua team and Pinkelman’s hospital, Avera Transplant Institute in Sioux Falls, S.D., coordinated the donor’s and recipient’s surgeries to occur on the same day. Pinkelman’s kidney was quickly flown to Philadelphia and then transported to Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes in Camden, N.J.

Within just 11 hours of Pinkelman’s procedure, Virtua surgeons Ely Sebastian, MD, and Ann Thompson, DO, began Springer’s two-and-a-half-hour transplant.

The organ started working immediately inside Springer, who recovered quickly.

“Once I left the hospital, I never took a pain pill. I could walk, I could take care of myself – it was amazing,” he said.

“My experience with Virtua Advanced Transplant and Organ Health has been fantastic,” Springer added. “From helping me stay on the transplant list, to doing all the testing and organizing, to actually getting the transplant, and then the care afterwards – they’ve been wonderful.”

Lorraine Springer is equally grateful. “I can’t believe where we are today. It’s like a whole new life since the transplant,” she said.

Excited to Get Together
Springer, Pinkelman, and their spouses were eager to meet in person for the first time.

“I still can't believe that I got a living kidney from this wonderful lady who doesn't know me, and she just did it out of the kindness of her heart. It's just unbelievable,” said Springer.

Pinkelman concealed her identity before the transplant. But a week after, she agreed to a video call.

“It was emotional,” recalled Springer. “I made a promise to Jill that I would take very good care of this kidney, and I am. I'm not doing anything that can harm it.”

Now, more than a year later, they finally had the chance to be together.

“I couldn’t wait to meet Jill and Daryl in person,” said Springer. “It’s incredible; I can’t thank them both enough.”

Pinkelman was also excited to meet the Springers, who celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in February.

“Budd is able to travel and see his grandkids. He’s able to live his life again. That gives me chills,” she said.

Virtua Health is South Jersey’s largest health system and the only provider of kidney, pancreas, and liver transplants in southern New Jersey. For more information, visit Virtua Advanced Transplant and Organ Health or call 888-847-8823.

To learn more about DOVE, visit, email, or call 551-233-1611.