Charlotte attorney Noah Allen had always been able to endure, even mask, a lot of pain. But by the fall of 2016, severe muscle cramps were waking him up in the middle of the night, leaving him writhing, crying and dripping with sweat.
It felt like his locked muscles were going to snap his bones.
His wife, Haley, eight months pregnant with their second child, knew she had to do something: Parts of Noah’s body weren’t working anymore and, without a transplant, her 26-year-old husband could die.
She put out a plea.
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“We’re the Allen family,” Haley, 27, wrote in a blog she posted Oct. 15. “We’re made up of a hard-working dad, a stay-at-home mom, one precious baby boy and our second son on the way.
“We serve a selfless Savior who’s the glue that holds us all together. Yet, we’re searching hard for a certain missing piece in this little puzzle called life . . . We’re searching for a kidney for my husband.”
Haley’s words landed all over, including some places overseas. In Fuquay-Varina, a town just south of Raleigh, a casual friend of Haley’s from college saw a link to the blog on Facebook.
She read it, then showed it to her husband.
Match made over health food
At 19, Noah had been diagnosed with “membranous nephropathy” – a form of kidney disease that’s usually diagnosed much later in life.
Chronic disease, the kind you can never turn off, became his new normal. He had to change his diet and regularly monitor key numbers that measure kidney function. After about a year, things stabilized.
Clinical remission, they called it. Noah still had kidney disease, but it wasn’t progressing.
So it was Haley’s health, not Noah’s, that was foremost on the couple’s minds during the early years of their relationship and marriage. Back then, he was usually the one taking care of her.
Haley had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during her childhood. She met Noah in February 2011, when both were students at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, because she was experiencing decreased kidney function. One of her doctors – an endocrinologist – recommended she follow a low-sodium diet.
A friend of Haley’s who’d once dated Noah suggested she contact him for information. He was writing his senior honors thesis on eating a healthy renal, or kidney-friendly, diet.
Haley, a self-described girly-girl, liked what she saw when Noah – handsome, 6-foot-tall, with a gift for conversation – arrived at her sorority house in his big blue truck. After introductions, he took her to a grocery store, Earth Fare. They loaded up on chicken, sauces and other healthy foods.
Next, they went to his place, where he cooked up a delicious low-salt dinner for two. And then they talked, and talked, until 2 a.m.
Three years later, Noah, then a law student at the University of South Carolina, proposed to Haley on a park bench in front of the school’s library – the same spot, the same bench, where Haley’s father had proposed to her mother three decades before.
In 2015, a year after their wedding, Noah passed the N.C. bar exam in Raleigh and took a job in Charlotte with Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft – the oldest New York-based Wall Street law firm still in existence.
Suddenly they could afford the best medical supplies and treatment for Haley. A pump to deliver her insulin cost $10,000 after insurance. That, plus their daily diligence in monitoring blood sugar levels and correctly using the tools they now had, brought Haley’s diabetes under control.
So much so, in fact, that Haley and Noah were able to have children. That was something they’d been told would be difficult, maybe even impossible, given their chronic diseases.
Son Charlie was born in July 2015.
A month later, Noah started seeing a nephrologist – a kidney doctor. Dire symptoms had returned.
‘Stay strong for Noah’
In Charlotte, Noah and Haley had moved into an uptown condo.
Noah’s law office was just across the street. He was a securities lawyer who worked with corporate clients on public and private offerings. And he kept crazy-busy. He flew to New York every other month. And he had even worked 24 hours straight, watching the sun rise from his Charlotte office.
Haley stayed home with Charlie and, early in 2016, got pregnant with their second son, Gentry.
But by then, Noah’s numbers – the ones measuring kidney function – had gone “off the deep end,” as he would later describe it.
Remission had ended; damage control began.
He met with medical specialists, flew to New York to get a second opinion, tried various treatments and drugs, and even spent time in the hospital.
Nothing seemed to work.
As his kidneys lost their ability to clean his blood, he retained fluid, causing his feet to swell and forcing him to wear driving loafers rather than dress shoes – part of the official uniform at most prestigious law firms.
It got harder to exercise. The hormonal imbalances brought frustration and depression. By the end of the work day, Noah had little energy left for his family.
And those agonizing muscle cramps – caused by a buildup of sodium, potassium and other “electrolytes” usually kept at constant levels by the kidneys – robbed him of much-needed sleep.
Watching her husband in such pain sent competing emotions swirling through Haley’s mind. Panic and fear – should I call 9-11? – would give way to what would become her new mantra: Stay strong for your husband, stay strong for Noah.
Haley thought about how her mother had stepped up when young Haley was diagnosed with diabetes. She had started a walk for junior diabetes in their hometown of Florence, S.C. And she and Haley had gone to Washington to testify before Congress with actress Mary Tyler Moore, who was also a type 1 diabetic.
Most of all, Haley prayed. Many others did, too. At nearby First Presbyterian Church, where Noah and Haley were active, the prayer ministry team invited the couple to tell their story, then huddled together with them in prayer.
In October 2016, Haley and Noah attended their first meeting with others who also needed a kidney transplant. Most were much older, in their 40s to 60s.
Nationally, about 100,000 people are on a waiting list for a kidney from a deceased donor. The average wait: three to five years. Too long for many of them.
The best kidney, they were told at the meeting, is from a living donor.
Hearing that, Haley knew what she had to do.
The next day, she started her blog:
“So, here I am at the grand age of 27 years old, 8.5 months pregnant with my second son, battling a chronic illness and high-risk pregnancy all while caring for a one-year-old, and I’ve begun the search for a kidney for my husband, because the fact is – he needs a transplant to live.
“This is where God has called me. And I need your help. I need prayer warriors. I need advocates. And I need a living donor. We don’t know who that living donor is just yet – maybe a family member, maybe a friend, maybe a Good Samaritan.
“But he or she is out there, and we are going to find him or her.”
‘How well do you know this guy?’
Why would you consider donating a kidney to someone you didn’t really know?
Amy Bardi and husband Wyatt came up with at least two answers as they read Haley’s blog in their Fuquay-Varina home.
Wyatt, 25, saw it as a tangible way to live out his Christian faith, to be that Good Samaritan – that loving neighbor – that Jesus spoke of in his most famous parable.
And for 27-year-old Amy, who had lost two babies through miscarriages, it would be a gift to Noah and Haley’s two baby boys – one due to be born the next month.
They would get to have their father see them grow up.
Amy had known Haley slightly in college and the two had been bridesmaids in a mutual friend’s wedding. But Wyatt didn’t know Haley or her husband.
He only knew that Noah was desperately sick and that maybe he could help. He’d already passed the first test: He noticed from Haley’s blog that he and Noah had the same blood type – A-positive.
For Amy and Wyatt, who attend Durham’s Summit Church, being a Christian was a serious, not a surface, thing. That meant looking for ways to model Christ by helping, even sacrificing for others.
Amy, for example, had started a non-profit, “Clothed in Hope,” that trained women in the south African country of Zambia in how to sew and run their own small businesses.
Wyatt was a medical laboratory recruiter – he found scientists to work in labs.
Like Haley and Noah, Amy and Wyatt had met each other in Columbia. They went to different schools – she was a student at the University of South Carolina, he attended a small Christian college called Columbia International University. But as members of the same evangelical church, they were asked to co-lead a service project in New York.
Reading Haley’s Oct. 15 blog, they saw another opportunity to give.
They prayed over it, talked about it, and educated themselves on what would be involved.
Wyatt’s parents expressed some concern about whether it could affect his long-term health. And many of his and Amy’s friends peppered them with questions. Like: How well do you know this Noah guy?
But they were ready to respond to Haley. So, on the morning of Nov. 1, Amy sent her a Facebook message.
“Hi friend!” it began. “I’ve been keeping up with your blog and your amazing efforts to find a kidney for Noah. ... My husband Wyatt has also been following along. He’s A+ and is ready to see if he’s a match for Noah.”
Haley wished she could teleport herself to Fuquay-Varina to give Amy the hug-to-end-all-hugs.
Instead, she messaged back: “Amy....You’re kidding me. I don’t even know what to say. ... I am beyond humbled you and Wyatt would even entertain the thought to help us. I know it’s such a massive decision and act of selflessness.”
A day or two later, Wyatt made an appointment at a lab to have his blood drawn. He also began filling out the paperwork.
Wyatt’s interest seemed like an answered prayer to Haley. But Noah had to be convinced. He didn’t know Wyatt and somebody he knew well – his mother – had offered one of her kidneys.
But she was smaller and older. It made more medical sense for his living donor to be another man. Plus, Wyatt was young, 5-foot-9, and, the tests would reveal, very healthy.
But the stunner came months into the process, with the tissue typing test. Donors are given three numbers, each judged on a scale of 1-10. Three zeros would signal the donor and donee are, genetically, identical twins. And 1-1-1 would be the numbers for genetic siblings.
Wyatt’s score: 1-1-1. “Kidney brother” would become Noah and Wyatt’s nickname for each other.
The two didn’t meet until early January of this year, when Wyatt and Amy came to Charlotte just days before Wyatt was officially designated the donor.
“I know we haven’t met yet but I’m really looking forward to meeting this weekend,” Wyatt texted Noah. “Hang in there, man.”
“Wyatt! My potential kidney brother! I’m hanging great – can’t wait to meet y’all either,” Noah texted back. “Still don’t have the words to express my gratitude . . .”
‘Because of you’
Noah got his new kidney from Wyatt on March 14 at Carolinas Medical Center.
Besides family, six members of First Presbyterian – including three pastors – showed up at the hospital to pray and show support.
Noah’s old kidneys had been functioning at 9 percent. And when they cut him open, it was so acidic, so toxic, inside that they had to wait two hours before they could complete the transplant.
“You were walking dead,” the surgeon later told him.
The operation left Noah with a 14-inch scar. But he says he already feels better than he has since he was 16 years old. More energy, no cramps. He can eat anything he wants. And he’s become inspired to do more to help others, including those who need a kidney.
Noah's new kidney could be good for 20 years or more. Then, depending on medical advances in the future, he may need another transplant. Meanwhile, he'll have to take anti-rejection drugs. They'll suppress his immune system, but they’ll also give his current transplanted kidney a better chance.
He and Haley’s friendship with Wyatt and Amy has gotten ever-closer. On their cell phones, their group text handle is The Fantastic Four.
Amy and Haley text at least 10 times a day. And Noah and Wyatt, who didn’t know each other until a few months ago, now talk every day.
On their new Apple watches, the two keep track of each others’ heartbeats and exercise regimens.
Noah, with his high tolerance for pain, was up and about before Wyatt, who had a smaller 4-inch scar but hadn’t been in the hospital since first grade. So Noah walked down to Wyatt’s hospital room to deliver the Apple gadgets he had bought.
Walking into Wyatt’s room that day, seeing him lying there in pain, Noah broke down, suddenly overwhelmed with love and gratitude for this guy who had saved his life.
“A piece of you is inside of me,” he told his kidney brother. “I’m alive because of you.”
Haley and the others say it’s appropriate that this all played out during the Easter season, which is about new life and victory over death.
“It’s truly a resurrection story,” Haley says. “I’m not looking death in the face. I’m looking at someone who’s been given life.”
Want more information on organ donations?
In North Carolina, people interested in donating organs can register with the DMV or register online at lifesharecarolinas.org.
In South Carolina, register with the DMV or at www.donatelifesc.org/register.
Those in the Charlotte area who want to be a “living donor” – by donating a kidney, for example – should call the transplant center at Carolinas Medical Center at 704-355-8817.
In the United States, 117,126 people are on the national waiting list for organs (as of April 13). That includes 2,868 in North Carolina.
Most of the people on the list need a kidney transplant. They total 97,787.