'He's my superhero': Mahomet's Linda Miller forever thankful to daughter's classmate after kidney donation

MAHOMET — Life can change in an instant, and for Mahomet's Linda Miller, it all changed with an unexpected phone call in early May. It was from Joel Shoemaker, the best friend of her eldest daughter, Sarah Miller, on the line. The two had graduated together from Mahomet-Seymour High School in 2002.

"He said, 'We're doing it! And it's all going to work out. It's all going to work out, Linda. I really believe that,' " Miller related.

Shoemaker had just informed his classmate's mother, who was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease at 18, that he wanted to be her kidney donor.

"It was almost like a gut reaction," said Shoemaker, a library director at Illinois Prairie District Public Library in Woodford County. "There was never a moment where I thought twice about it."

Miller, a nurse at Carle Cancer Center's gynecology/oncology department, recalls spending a great deal of time driving Shoemaker and her daughter to and from all those high school theater rehearsals.

"When my daughter got a beater car when she turned 16, then she drove him all around," she joked. "They were like peas in a pod."

"He liked my cooking," Miller added, while smiling. "He would come often. I would say, 'Just show up about 5:30, that's when I have it,' and he did."

Shoemaker knew of Miller's need for a kidney transplant, but he had no idea she didn't have a donor. That is until his sister, Roni Daugherty, informed him after reading a news article online.

"When my sister saw it on social media, she said, 'I'll give mine,' and I said, 'I'll give her mine,'" he said.

Suddenly, the now-60-year-old with 17 percent kidney function had hope.

"I would have never imagined him to step up," Miller said. "He was young, and we don't see him as much now because he lives over by Metamora and so I guess I never thought of him and her, and especially her; I don't know her that well."

Before, Miller faced a wait time of five to 10 years for a transplant, because "you go way down on the (transplant) list" at 60.

"I was just so touched," Miller said, "I couldn't believe it — that two people in the same family volunteered."

"The best part (was) when he called me and said, 'Both of us are sending in our health form,'" Miller added. "He said, 'I'm getting all of the testing. I'm so excited. I'm so excited. I really want this to work out. I really want to give you my kidney.'

"Both siblings were matches. But as it turned out, Shoemaker's blood work somehow got there first," Miller said, "so they worked him up first."

The road ahead was long, with six grueling months of medical testing to confirm she had a match.

"First they had to get the health form and see if anything knocked them out that way and then they passed that, then they get a bunch more blood work and testing and he had to go down to Barnes (Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis) and get the big testing that takes all day," she explained.

But then Shoemaker reached out with another life-changing phone call.

"'These are the two dates. What would you like to do?'" Miller said, remembering his call.

Surgery was two weeks away. A date was set for Oct. 30.

"As soon as I found out it was a thing and that it was possible for me to be the donor, it was go, go, go. What do they need next? I'm ready to do it. I've never had any hesitation," Shoemaker said.

For the Germantown Hills resident, the transplant operation was quick and relatively painless.

"I went in on Tuesday for the surgery," Shoemaker said. "They unhooked all of the machines on Wednesday night and then I was up leaving Thursday midday," he added. "I was really blessed with a speedy recovery and had no issues. I have a scar but I don't even really notice it at this point, so it's pretty much back to normal."

The whole transplant process took four days for Miller, but 10 days later she was readmitted.

"My creatinine level (a kidney waste product related to kidney functioning) was going up every time," Miller said. "It was going up little by little. At one point, they said, 'OK, it's not going down at all. We need to do a kidney biopsy on you to make sure the kidney's OK and that you don't have rejection.'"

But all was well as the doctors confirmed her kidney was functioning "completely fine."

"It was healthy and I had no infection, I had no rejection," she added. "They think it was just going to take some time for his kidney to get on board."

Miller still lives with her native kidneys. That's three kidneys total.

"I would like to have those (the failed kidneys) out because they're very uncomfortable and quite painful at times," she said.

Understandably so, as Miller told The Mahomet Citizen in May she had 20 pounds of cysts in her kidneys.

Her goal is to have them removed in six to eight months, once she is stable and finished healing.

"Truly my new kidney functioning will be three months out when the old kidneys will shut down and it's doing everything on its own," she added.

But now six weeks post-op, the mother of two, her youngest daughter Katie Walk, a Middletown Prairie Elementary kindergarten teacher, and grandmother of two to a 10-year-old and 8-month-old, has a new outlook on life.

"There are still good people in the world," she said. "Sometimes we think it's not so, but it is so. It renewed my faith in humanity that there are many good people in the world that are willing to help others."

And as for Shoemaker?

"He's my superhero," Miller said. "And he always will be for such a sacrifice."

Superhero indeed.

Hours after surgery, Miller said Shoemaker was "doing magic tricks for the staff."

"Then he came down and saw me," she added.

"He came down for his post-op and I was still in St. Louis so he came down and visited me and then he's frequently texting me, 'How are you? How are you?'"

And such a heroic act requires a hero's welcome.

"He loved my cookin' so I'm going to make noodles this week and I'm going to make homemade chicken and noodles and his favorite dessert (pistachio dessert) and mashed potatoes," Miller said.

The decision to donate a kidney was so "easy" for Shoemaker to make, but his advice for others considering becoming a donor is to understand that it's "such a personal decision."

"I would encourage people to explore the option because there's so many advancements in the technology and in the medicine," he said.

"It's not necessarily easy to live with one kidney, but it's easier (now), and the cool thing is they treat you really well and they told me if I ever needed a kidney I would be bumped up to the top (of the transplant list) because I'm a living donor, which I think is really cool," he added. "It's a really cool opportunity."

As for Miller's future, she's set to retire from Carle Dec. 31 after a 41-year career. Having traveled on safari to Kenya and Tanzania in March, Miller admits, once healed, she may even catch another case of the travel bug.

"There's lots of national parks I want to go to still and I could probably go to Canada," she said.

But as for now, she's focused on recovering.

"I'm supposed to be homebound, but I can get out and walk," she said.

Her longest walk since the transplant?

"About 2 1/ 2 miles," Miller said.

"I'm not up to the 4-mile mark," she added of her pre-surgery daily routine.

"I'll try to get back up to my 4 miles. That's what I did previously for the last 30 years. When my brother died, it was my therapy."

Categories (3):News, People, Special Reports

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