Mary Ziegler donates kidney to ex-husband Bill Henrichs.
It didn’t start with a kidney.
Sure, the kidney Mary Ziegler donated to her friend and companion of nearly 50 years — 22 of them as her husband, 20 as her ex-husband — may be the most concrete connection between them.
No, it started with a decision — 20 years ago — to have a happy divorce.
“We kind of made a commitment at the time to get along,” said Bill Henrichs of St. Cloud. “And to not do anything poorly to each other and to the kids. You know all those bad divorce things, we agreed not to do that.”
But they did so much more than that — even after both remarried.
“I always say that Bill never left our family, but his wife Linda joined it,” Ziegler said. “I consider Linda a gift to my kids and me, and to Bill, and one of the best things that ever happened to all of us.”
So donating a kidney didn’t seem like too much to give for Ziegler or too much to ask for for Henrichs — not when they had already done the hard work of creating a new, bigger family.
The family is celebrating — all together — this Thanksgiving: Henrich’s improving health and Ziegler’s gift of a kidney along with their kids and several grandkids.
“I mean our kids have always been really proud to tell the story of their mom and dad and their stepmom and dad,” Ziegler said. “But now, I think they were really proud to say, yeah, my mom gave my dad a kidney, and they’re divorced.”
Henrichs had been living with kidney failure caused by diabetes and hypertension for a while.
“It was … fairly stable for quite a few years, and then I started to drop in the last year,” he said.
He was well past the point of needing dialysis. But he and his doctors knew a new kidney was coming, so they held off.
“I had probably 30 people volunteer to be checked and tested,” he said.
Two others were tested before Ziegler, but they weren’t healthy enough to donate. Others who volunteered were too old or didn’t match closely enough to Henrichs.
That’s when Ziegler volunteered.
“The next option was our children, and they’re got little kids, got jobs. … It wasn’t their time to do something like this,” Ziegler said, even though the kids volunteered.
Henrichs said his doctors likely wouldn’t have wanted to give him that young of a kidney anyway, when it could help someone much younger. If his kids donated, they’d likely have had to arrange some sort of chain donation, where strangers agree to donate to each other’s loved ones.
Blood work was sent to the Mayo Clinic, and doctors found Ziegler and Henrichs were the same blood type and shared quite a few antigens, Ziegler said.
“The universe was just kind of like, you’re the one,” Ziegler said. “I’m a big believer in when you’re tapped on the shoulder, you should answer the call.”
She was also in a good spot in her life: 40 years at the same job meant she could likely easily take time off.
In a way, Ziegler’s donation was the ultimate “I told you so” ending to an ongoing argument in their marriage.
“One of our issues when we were married is I’m super-athletic and into health and fitness and wellness and this guy wasn’t,” Ziegler said. “So I was going to remind you. … Aren’t you glad?”
“That you stayed (healthy)?” Henrichs said. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Henrichs was, of course, grateful for the donation. But there was more emotion than he expected.
“I wasn’t so worried about myself,” Henrichs said. “Going into this, it’s kind of like … worrying about two people. So that was a little hard for me.”
But Ziegler doesn’t really worry. Her biggest concern was how she’d handle the required recovery period.
“Because I knew I’m not a sitting around type of person,” she said. As it turned out, Ziegler was in such good shape she was able to go back to work full time in three weeks. Most people take six to eight weeks to heal.
“I do a lot of yoga and you know, that’s super core strengthening,” Ziegler said. “If anything, I feel invigorated and energetic because I had to sit around for two weeks.”
Henrichs is on the mend, too.
“I have three kidneys now. … They just add one. So I have two bad ones and a good one,” he said.
As for worrying about anything else that could go wrong with major surgery, Ziegler knew she couldn’t control the outcome.
“Even when I was in the pre-op … We were right next to each other, remember? … Because stuff happens, I was thinking about that,” Ziegler said. “And I’m like, well, if I don’t make it, then I’m going to know what it’s all about.”
She said she’s lost some people she was very close to in recent years, including her long-time boss, Dick Bernick. She was his executive assistant. She also lost a brother-in-law, another good friend of the family and a nephew.
“So there’s a lot of people waiting. And so I was kind of like, well, I’ll feel bad for all these suckers down here, but I’ll be off to the next adventure,” Ziegler said.
The most tangible problem for everyone who came out of the surgery was child care.
“Either one of us was taking care of the (grandkids) … And so all of sudden, neither one of us could,” Henrichs said.
They did spend some time preparing their grandchildren, all age 10 and younger, for the surgeries.
Ziegler got out a big anatomy book with the 4-year-old.
“I sat down and I showed her, you know, (this is) what Grandma is going to give to Grandpa, because his is sick. Her eyes were pretty big,” Ziegler said.
The surgeries required some other adjustments, too.
“I kept telling her, you know Grandma is not going to be able to be picking you up and carrying around,” Ziegler said, and her granddaughter asked why. “I’d explain to her and then she’d say, ‘Well, I don’t want you to do that.’ ”
But the lesson must have stuck.
“Now, I’ll help her out of the car and she’ll go, ‘No Grandma, I can do it. You don’t need to lift me out,’ ” Ziegler said. “And then of course when I came home, ‘I wanna see your owie!’ ” Ziegler said.
Ziegler was home a few weeks before Henrichs, who had to stay in Rochester for tests and observation. The 4-year-old was happy to see him.
“She was pretty excited when I finally made it home,” Henrichs said.