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Kidney donor enters couple's lives thanks to swiping right on Tinder

TAMPA — Almost four months ago, Rich O'Dea took Jennifer Thomas out on a blind date.

Both were trying to get over recent breakups. O'Dea told Thomas about his passion for running marathons. He told her about his close friend, Scott Bragan, who leads a team of marathoners who raise awareness and funds for the Polycystic Kidney Foundation.

His wife, Erika Bragan, suffers from polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that can cause kidney failure. She was facing a lifetime of dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Thomas wanted to help. She has O-positive blood.

Erika Bragan also has O-positive blood.

Thomas got tested. After weeks of tests, she got the news: She was a match.

Now, Erika Bragan is set to get a new kidney from someone she had never met before.

And all because two people swiped right on Tinder.

Erika Bragan was diagnosed with the disease, known as PKD, 14 years ago while she was pregnant with her daughter.

Parents have a 50 percent chance of passing the disease along to their children. The Bragans have two: Madison, 14, and Spencer, 11. The parents said their children have not yet been tested for the disease because of insurance reasons.

About 600,000 Americans suffer from PKD, the fourth leading cause of kidney failure. More than 50 percent will have failing kidneys by age 50, according to the PKD Foundation.

Erika Bragan, 44, has spent two years on the transplant list. Scott Bragan, 47, was once a match for his wife. But then his blood pressure medication eliminated him as a donor.

So, he turned to marathons. Since 2009, he said his Team Tampa PKD has run eight marathons and raised about $115,000 for the PKD Foundation.

"As Erika got more sick," he said, "my way of dealing with it was to run and raise money and awareness."

Through the team's efforts, four potential donors came forward to try to help Erika Bragan. They went through the testing process, but none were matches.

O'Dea met Thomas through Tinder, a dating app on smartphones.

Users swipe right on the photos of people they're interested in.

They swipe left on everyone else.

O'Dea and Thomas both swiped right on each other.

They went to see Imagine Dragons on July 10 at Amalie Arena. It was their first and only date, though they remain good friends.

When O'Dea, 43, started talking about running and how the wife of his good friend needed a new kidney, Thomas, 35, wanted to know more.

Back then, Thomas had never met Erika Bragan. But she still set out to help the mother of two any way she could.

"I'm doing what I know is right," Thomas said. "If I wasn't a match, then I would tell every person I meet about this."

O'Dea didn't believe Thomas was serious about becoming a donor but connected her with the Bragans anyway.

Through Tampa General Hospital's Living Kidney Donor Program, Thomas underwent a series of tests, lab work and body scans. She had to undergo 24-hour urinalysis three times. Once, when she couldn't run home from work, she kept her urine jug in the breakroom fridge.

"It's overwhelming," Scott Bragan said. "I kept thinking she was going to change her mind after all the tests."

Thomas didn't change her mind. Meanwhile, Erika Bragan's situation became more dire. Her kidney function is down to just 5 percent. The hospital moved up Thomas' testing dates and crunched them into just a few days. Surgery was set for Nov. 18.

"It's so great to be excited for someone else," Thomas said. "I'm so excited for her to be able to sit down and make a meal with her kids and really enjoy it."

Thomas said her biggest supporter has been her own son, Jayden, 9.

Scott and Erika Bragan said they felt guilty about asking a stranger to donate a kidney.

But in just a few short months, Thomas has become an important part of the Bragan family.

"(Jennifer Thomas) is the kind of person that I want to surround my wife, kids and friends with," Scott Bragan said. "She will be a friend for life."

He and Team Tampa PKD are planning ways to help Thomas and her son after surgery. On Nov. 1, they ran in the New York City Marathon to keep helping the PKD cause.

It's still hard for the Bragans to believe that they found the right donor — at the right time.

"Just a few weeks ago, the doctor was ready put the catheter in for dialysis," Scott Bragan said. "We've gone from a marathon to a sprint."

Contact Chelsea Tatham at ctatham@tampabay.com or on Twitter @chelseatatham.

Kidney donor enters couple's lives thanks to swiping right on Tinder 11/08/15 [Last modified: Sunday, November 8, 2015 10:23pm]
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