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Tampa's Tinder date heard 'round the world goes viral as kidney transplant nears

After connecting with Rich O’Dea, 43, on Tinder, Jennifer Thomas, 35, got tested as a potential kidney donor for a friend of O’Dea. She matched.
After connecting with Rich O’Dea, 43, on Tinder, Jennifer Thomas, 35, got tested as a potential kidney donor for a friend of O’Dea. She matched.
Published Nov. 16, 2015

TAMPA — Scott Bragan was busy at work one morning last week when he first looked down at his cellphone: He had more than 60 texts.

They were from friends and family telling him to check the news and social media.

The story of how a friend's Tinder date helped his wife, Erika Bragan, find a kidney donor from a woman they had never met before had gone viral.

It was back on Nov. 8 that the Tampa Bay Times told the story of Jennifer Thomas, who went out on a blind date in July with Rich O'Dea, a friend of the Bragans.

Since then, the Bragans have appeared on Good Morning America, and People magazine picked up their story. The tale has spread across Facebook and Twitter. Next up might be the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Back in July, both Thomas and O'Dea swiped right to each other on Tinder, a dating app where people swipe right (yes) or left (no) to each other based on short biographies and pictures.

"Her profile was simple: 'I love tacos,'" O'Dea said. "It seemed like she had a great personality.

"I never expected this."

Nor did anyone expect that Thomas would offer to donate her kidney to Erika Bragan — a 44-year-old mother of two who suffers from polycystic kidney disease (PKD) — and help save her from a lifetime of dialysis. And none of them expected to end up on national TV.

After the Times story ran, Scott Bragan, 47, has been getting calls for interviews almost hourly. Good Morning America set up a TV crew in the Bragans' living room Nov. 9 to get them on the next morning's show.

The story has certainly lasted longer than the date that O'Dea, 43, and Thomas, 35, went on. (They remain friends.)

"It's been an amazing experience; it's surreal," O'Dea said. "I'm so happy to have crossed (Thomas') path.

"She deserves all the credit."

O'Dea took Thomas to the Imagine Dragons concert July 10 at the Amalie Arena. O'Dea talked about his love of running, and how he was helping raise money for the PKD Foundation to help Erika Bragan.

Thomas, who has a 9-year-old son, decided to get tested as a donor. She turned out to be a match. She has stayed on the sidelines during the media frenzy, stepping in for interviews only when Scott Bragan and O'Dea ask.

"At the end of the day, it's Erika's story," Thomas said. "It's really happening to her."

Thomas, O'Dea and the Bragans have done interviews with media as close as Bay News 9 and as far away as the Weekend Sunrise TV show in Australia.

The story also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Post, Cosmopolitan magazine, the British tabloid the Daily Mirror and many others.

"It's unexpected, but exciting and fun," Thomas said. "(But) I can't wait until after the surgery when Erika is feeling better."

The transplant surgery is still set for Wednesday. Scott Bragan said he's spent the last few days focused on keeping his wife comfortable until then. Because of the disease's progression, she doesn't have the energy for much. The story's reach has been overwhelming, but Erika Bragan knows the global support helps.

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"People like to hear and share happy stories," Scott Bragan said. "That's why I think the media has taken off with it."

The procedure will take place at Tampa General Hospital and should take all day. Thomas will undergo surgery first, then Erika Bragan will be prepared to receive the kidney around noon.

The days following the surgery will focus on recovery. The marathon team that Scott Bragan created to support his wife, Team Tampa PKD, has fundraisers planned to support the PKD Foundation and to aid in Thomas' recovery.

"I told my team, 'This experience is going to change your life,' " Scott Bragan said. "Jennifer is donating a gift of life; it's very special that we found her."

The four of them — Scott and Erika Bragan, O'Dea and Thomas — have become close in the past four months. During their interview with Australia's Weekend Sunrise, Thomas gave Erika Bragan a matching jade bracelet in hopes the stones will help with her healing.

"I feel like it's kind of my purpose," Thomas said. "I'm happy to do it and be a part of something."

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


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