TAMPA — When Erika Bragan woke up from surgery, she noticed a difference immediately.
"I knew I felt better already," she said.
This time last year Bragan, 44, was wondering how much longer her kidneys would last before dialysis became the only option. She has suffered from polycystic kidney disease since her early teens.
She now celebrates the new year with a new kidney.
In a heartwarming story first reported by the Tampa Bay Times ( tbtim.es/u3p), Bragan found a kidney donor through a friend's blind date. Rich O'Dea, a friend of Bragan's husband, Scott, matched with Jennifer Thomas on Tinder, a mobile dating app.
After a date, Thomas, 34, decided to get tested to see if she could be a donor for Bragan, who was down to 5 percent kidney function.
A few months later, Thomas was deemed a match. On Nov. 18, she successfully donated her left kidney, saving Bragan a lifetime of dialysis.
Thomas and Bragan's story went viral, with coverage in national and international news outlets. Since the surgery, the Bragans, Thomas and O'Dea have been doing interviews almost weekly.
"Not only do our close friends know about (the story), the world knows about it," Scott Bragan, 47, said. "It's been pretty overwhelming."
The changes in Erika Bragan's health were immediately apparent. She sleeps better at night, can eat without worrying about feeling sick and no longer has to take multiple naps during the day. "I have a lot more energy, and I can eat whatever I want now," she said.
One of the first foods she ate after surgery was McDonald's french fries. Her first big meal of the year was Thanksgiving dinner with her family.
Though normal complications after major surgery kept Bragan in the hospital for a couple of weeks, she was sent home a little after midnight on Thanksgiving Day.
Now she finds it hard to sit still. Last week, she did her first run since May.
The first month after surgery was critical, with Bragan having to wear a mask to protect from sickness. Because of her antirejection medication, she will have a compromised immune system for the rest of her life.
Both she and Scott Bragan agree that's better than dialysis.
Her kidney donor, Thomas, who has remained overwhelmingly positive through the process, said she is completely recovered from surgery. She said it has been relatively easy for her body to adjust to having only one kidney.
"I already knew it was going to go great," Thomas said. "I woke up (from surgery) feeling like I got hit by a train, but it was nothing in comparison (to what Bragan went through)."
Thomas won't have to take special medications or do much more testing. She will just go in for normal checkups.
While the two women have recovered from surgery, Scott Bragan and his running group, Team Tampa PKD, are still working to raise awareness about kidney donations. The team has been running marathons, raising more than $100,000 for the PKD Foundation since 2009.
"We are going to continue to run marathons. We're hoping to do another (this year)," O'Dea said. "There are other people who have this disease. (We want to) continue to raise money and awareness for medications and cures."
Erika Bragan and Thomas have become close since the surgery. They joke with family and friends about "Erika taking a part of Jennifer wherever she goes."
"Her (Thomas) optimism really carried the team. Her positivity is contagious," Scott Bragan said. "She carries around rainbow stickers in her purse, calls it Jenfetti, and hands them out to anyone and everyone."
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.