Lifesaving gift for Groton teacher in need of a kidney

Brad Vernet of Mystic will receive a kidney from Mike Sheehan of California, a college friend. Vernet is a science instructor at West Side Middle School in Groton.
Brad Vernet of Mystic will receive a kidney from Mike Sheehan of California, a college friend. Vernet is a science instructor at West Side Middle School in Groton. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Friends and family of West Side Middle School science teacher Brad Vernet tried for months to find him a matching live kidney donor, utilizing Facebook and YouTube to publicize their cause.

But ultimately, they found success through old fashioned word-of-mouth.

Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston approved Vernet's classmate from Springfield College, Mike Sheehan, of Davis, Calif., as a match about a week ago. Sheehan learned of Vernet's search over the summer from a mutual classmate. Doctors will now transfer Sheehan's left kidney to Vernet during three hours of simultaneous surgery slated for April 10.

Vernet and his wife, who live in Mystic with their two children, are now beaming with relief and gratitude at the news.

"He's in it and he's ready to go, so we're so fortunate," said wife Katy, who teaches at Claude Chester School in Groton.

The transfer couldn't have come at a better time. Vernet was born with only one kidney and 23 years ago was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease.

This past summer, his kidney function dropped to below 20 percent and he entered stage five of the disease. He said Sunday that his kidney function has recently stabilized at a low of eight percent.

"I'm just going week by week now, and I am tired," Vernet said Sunday at his Mystic home.

Sheehan notified the Vernet family March 9 that he would be donating. He said he has refrained from telling the family he was going through the donor process for fear of letting them down if he didn't work out as a match. Hospitals don't notify patients of a possible donor until the donor has passed a rigorous series of tests and confirmed his or her intent to give an organ.

"We so seldom have an option in our life to have this sort of impact on someone else's life," said Sheehan on Sunday.

He submitted preliminary paperwork in the summer. While Sheehan waited to find out if he would be eligible to donate his kidney, the Vernet family poured their energy into exploring available options.

They were accepted to the waitlist of the national organ donor registry in the fall, but the wait time for a kidney from a cadaver through the registry can take as long as five years.

Vernet's wife said 15 to 20 friends told the couple they had started the donor screening process. One friend made it to the tail end of the process, only for doctors to rule him out due to high blood pressure. Vernet and his wife started looking into paired exchange, in which hospitals investigate whether a donor rejected for one patient is a good match for another.

"There's this whole feeling of you just don't even know what direction to go in," said Katy.

Community support made the stress more bearable.

"Generally, people have been amazing," said Vernet.

Support has reached beyond the search for a kidney. Friends and family have organized fundraising efforts to help cover uninsured transplant-related expenses.

Digital and content strategist Elissa Bass of Stonington, a friend of the Vernets, helped create the Facebook page Help Find Brad a Kidney. She said that more than 200 people showed up to a bowl-a-thon benefit two weeks ago.

Vernet's supporters also recently sold about 200 T-shirts to spread the word about his cause. Groton Public Schools teachers and students are wearing the neon-green shirts with "HFBK" printed on the front today as part of "Go Green for Brad Day."

Bass said that while the Facebook group didn't lead directly to Vernet finding a donor, it "branded" his search and raised awareness about live kidney donation and organ donation in general.

"A lot of people signed up as organ donors who otherwise wouldn't," she said.

The page also garnered national media attention.

Vernet has been off work since last month to manage his disease. He plans to return to teaching in the fall.

Still, he has stayed active as he awaits surgery. He was taking 10 to 15 mile bike rides as recently as October or November, he said. He has since toned down his exercise regimen, but still walks two to three miles each day to manage symptoms such as water retention and swelling. He even made it to his son Martin's soccer game last weekend.

Vernet expects to regain energy soon after receiving his new kidney. He said he has heard that transplant patients feel better almost immediately after surgery.

Surgery won't be the end of treatment. Vernet will stay in the hospital about a week after the surgery and return every other day for about for two weeks so that doctors can monitor his body's response to the transplant.

Sheehan said he expects few changes in his life physically after giving up a kidney, aside from having to avoid ibuprofen and aspirin, which are hard on the organ.

"I think it will continue to have a positive effect on me just spiritually," he said.

t.townsend@theday.com

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