Mar 3, 2023

‘An incredible friend’: Medtronic employee donates kidney

When Mark Bubalo let his Facebook friends know he was looking for a kidney donor, he never thought a colleague would come forward

Michele Hagel was scrolling Facebook one evening in the fall of 2021 when she saw a post from a Medtronic co-worker that stopped her in her tracks.

She was surprised to learn her colleague, Mark Bubalo, a quality systems specialist who lived a healthy lifestyle, needed a new kidney. 

“Many of you who know me understand I’m not one to share too many personal details,” Bubalo wrote in the post. “And as much as I want to keep fighting on my own, it’s no longer realistic without the help of others. So now I am reaching out for help.” 

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Medtronic employees Michele Hagel, left, and Mark Bubalo, met up in February 2023 and captured this photo together. Hagel donated a kidney on Bubalo’s behalf in November 2022.

‘Telling your story’ 

Bubalo first experienced kidney complications as a child, but it wasn’t until recent years that he was diagnosed with Alport Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by progressive kidney damage. In 2019, his kidney function had significantly deteriorated, and Bubalo’s doctors told him to start preparing for a kidney transplant. 

It could take up to seven years to get a cadaver kidney, and Bubalo was willing to wait. But for his long-term health, his doctor urged him to seek out a living donor instead.  

“I didn't want to feel like I was out there begging for someone to do this for me,” Bubalo said. “And my doctor’s like, ‘You're not begging, you're not asking. You're just telling your story.’”  

Hagel, an employee relations specialist, saw that story on social media and silently said a prayer, hoping someone would step forward to help Bubalo.  

“And then I felt this response back that was like, ‘Well, you're someone,’” she said.  

Hagel signed up to become a donor. A couple days later, she messaged Bubalo on Facebook to let him know.  

“It did not click,” Bubalo said of his co-worker’s message, adding he saw the word “donation,” and thought Hagel had made a monetary contribution. “And then five or 10 minutes later, it finally hit me.”  

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Mark Bubalo sticks a needle to his arm for the first time as he learns to self-administer dialysis treatments. Bubalo was diagnosed with Alport Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by progressive kidney damage, and required regular, in-home dialysis treatments.

The donation journey 

Hagel and Bubalo hadn’t worked directly together in several years, but they had once bonded over each spending time in the same small Minnesota town. 

Over nine months, the colleagues grew much closer. Hagel embarked on a long road of testing and procedures to ensure she was healthy enough to donate a kidney. Bubalo checked in regularly and offered encouragement.  

“It’s a big thing to go through,” he said of Hagel’s donation. “I appreciated just getting to know her. She’s just an incredible friend.”  

Meanwhile, Bubalo’s health continued to deteriorate. After working a full day, four times per week, he settled into an at-home dialysis treatment for five hours. It was an exhausting routine that left little time in Bubalo’s life for much else.     

A paired exchange 

Hagel was not a compatible donor for Bubalo, so instead she donated on his behalf through a paired exchange program. 

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Before his kidney function deteriorated, Mark Bubalo lived a healthy lifestyle. He ran his first marathon in 2005. Following the kidney transplant in November 2022, Bubalo said he looks forward to returning to physical fitness and to some of his favorite foods, too.

Such programs allow would-be recipients who have willing, yet-incompatible donors to match up with others in the same situation. Once the pairs are matched, they “swap” kidneys. Each living donor gives a kidney to the compatible recipient – even though they may not know each other.  

Hagel’s kidney was donated to recipient in Portland, Oregon, and Bubalo’s donor was a young woman from Minnesota who he hopes to meet someday. The transplants were completed in November 2022 — the surgeries one day apart.  

Following the transplant, Bubalo’s kidney function improved instantly, and he felt “incredible.”  

The pair met up in-person after the surgeries, their families bringing gifts and meals for each other. To see Hagel was OK brought Bubalo a sense of relief. He’s eager to return to casual running. And he’s enjoying foods like shrimp and sausage pizza – things his diet didn’t allow the last five years. 

Hagel said the donation experience has been one of the hardest things she’s gone through. But it’s been a profound reminder that people need the support of one another to get through life.    

“I’m just so grateful that I had a healthy kidney to donate, that I was able to do this, that I had the support of family and friends to be able to do this,” Hagel said.  

In 2021, 5,971 people in the United States received a living-donor kidney, according to The National Kidney Foundation, and 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant. March is Kidney Month and Medtronic is partnering with the National Kidney Foundation to raise awareness and donations for the kidney disease community.


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