TAMPA — The traffic light had changed from red to green and back to yellow before the woman at the wheel, staring at a cellphone, realized her mistake.
Allan Gutcher sat in his truck behind her in the center lane, at the intersection of Fletcher and Orange Grove, blasting his horn and spewing a few words he would later regret.
Time was a precious commodity on this Thanksgiving eve. Allan, owner of a wooden baseball bat company, Beacon Bats, had gone to Lowe’s to purchase a few things to keep him busy in the woodshop during the long holiday weekend.
His wife, Carol, telephoned to ask where he was. Eighteen people would be coming to dinner the next day, and there was much to do.
Another intersection. Another red light.
He read the vinyl letters pasted on the back window of the woman’s SUV: MY HUSBAND NEEDS AN O+ KIDNEY.
Allan, 57, had been a regular blood donor since his days at Plant High School, when an act of goodwill was also an easy invitation to ditch class. He knew he was a match.
The light flipped to green.
“She turned into a townhouse complex, and I kept going,” Allan said.
He drove toward his house in Carrollwood.
But that plea stuck with him.
“I got about halfway home and I caught my truck literally turning itself around in the middle of the road.
“I said to myself, ‘Allan, what are you doing?’”
• • •
Patsy Nielsen spent years trying to save her husband’s life. She had met Patrick, 41, on a dating website but wouldn’t give him her phone number the first time they chatted online.
Patrick had arrived in the United States at age 10 when his family immigrated from Chile. At 12, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
In July 2017, Patrick learned that his kidneys weren’t working. That summer, he went through a series of tests before he could be put on a donor list. Doctors discovered he had five blockages in his heart.
His life became a blur of hospitals, doctors and dialysis.
Open heart surgery. Another failed stress test. A blood clot in his right leg.
Patsy listened closely to doctors and became a self-taught dialysis technician, so Patrick could get treatments from home — at least three hours daily, five days a week after working as a salesman at Shooter’s World.
“He was up at five in the morning, and the whole day was gone,” Patsy said. “By the time he got home, he was so exhausted and so worn out, the whole day was a waste for him.”
NEED A KIDNEY HERO, IS IT YOU? That was the first sign Patsy pasted on her SUV, along with her phone number and email address, but it yielded few responses.
When Patsy switched her car sticker to MY HUSBAND NEEDS AN O+ KIDNEY, the response was initially encouraging after a photo was uploaded to the South of Gandy Facebook page. The post was shared more than 50,000 times in three days.
“We had people from the Bahamas, Africa. … I think I received a call from at least one person from every state,” she said. “We had a couple people who matched blood typing, but we never heard back from them again.
“We didn’t hear from anybody for a little while until Allan saw my car.”
• • •
What would make someone want to donate a kidney to a complete stranger?
Allan wondered that himself as he drove into the Fletchers Mill Townhouse community looking for that SUV. He scouted car after car, worrying that he had the wrong complex. Maybe she had just been dropping someone off. Maybe she had been lost.
“Literally in the last parking area, I look down and I see her car,” he recalled.
He took a photo of the message, then hesitated, thinking he would call after the holiday weekend.
“Once again, the voices in my head told me, ‘Allan, you need to call right now because Monday is four days away. You’re going to forget about that picture in your phone, life is going to go on. You need to do this right now.’”
Allan called, Patsy answered. “I saw your car with the lettering in the back of the window. I know I have O positive blood. How can I help?”
Patsy knew the drill. Few people ever followed up. Those who bothered to get tested obviously had a change of heart or weren’t a match. She gave Allan the contact information to Tampa General with few expectations.
When Allan arrived home, he registered online as a living kidney transplant donor. When the hospital called that Friday, Allan knew it was time to tell his wife.
“She was absolutely, 100 percent on board,” he said. “The first thing she asked me, ‘Are you doing this for Ron?’”
• • •
Ron Helfrich was the best man in the Gutchers’ wedding. He and Allan had met as volunteer divers at the Lowry Park Zoo in the manatee exhibit.
Helfrich also was the reason Allan had ever considered organ donation.
A blood infection damaged both of Helfrich’s kidneys. His initial transplant lasted 15 years. When that wore out, Helfrich’s brother donated one before Allan could step up. Helfrich died five years ago of a heart illness.
Maybe that was a subconscious factor in this latest life-or-death decision. Allan prefers to think it was a higher calling.
The Gutchers have every appearance of a Rockwellian family. Allan met Carol on a blind date. She was a scholarship swimmer at Virginia. Oldest son Danny, 20, starred in baseball at Gaither High School, earned a scholarship to USF, played his freshman season there and is in the process of transferring to Eckerd College. Carley, 17, will be a senior at Gaither, and runs track and cross country.
When Danny got involved in travel baseball, a trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., included commemorative wooden bats for every player. Allan did the math and realized it could become a lucrative business.
So he opened a shop at his home, and Beacon Bats was born in 2014.
But with all that going for him, why risk a major surgery?
“I was raised, and hopefully the way we’ve raised our kids, is you help others out in need without any regard for reward at all,’’ Allan said. “You just do it because that’s the right thing to do.”
• • •
During the testing process, Allan did not speak to Patrick. Patsy didn’t want her husband’s hopes to be dashed again.
A quiet man who smiles easily, Patrick loves hunting and fishing — anything outdoors. He marvels at his wife’s devotion.
“She never gave up with anything,” Patrick said. “She would be at all my doctor visits. I might miss something. She wanted to make sure she double-checked all. She pushed through so much.”
Her commitment inspired him.
“I never had any doubts,” he said. “I felt it was going to happen when it happens.”
On Valentine’s Day, Tampa General called to tell Allan he was a perfect match for Patrick. He had completed all the medical tests, all the psychological evaluations.
It was time to let the Nielsens know.
“They gave me the pleasure of calling them on Valentine’s Day, and we all had a good cry,’’ Allan said.
“We knew for three years he needed a kidney and to finally hear those words and it was a complete stranger?” Patsy said. “It was amazing because you pray for that day to come and you think, ‘Is this real?’”
The surgery was set for April 23.
But in mid-March, the world stopped. COVID-19 spread like wildfire in places like New York and Washington. Stay-at-home orders were issued. Hospitals cancelled elective surgeries.
More time to think about surgery can mean more time for a donor to change his mind. At the very least, it meant more suffering through the rigors of dialysis for Patrick.
Patsy could see the toll it was taking on his body. Dark circles formed under Patrick’s eyes, and he had a gray cast to his complexion.
When surgery was finally scheduled for May 12, Allan was expected to be at Tampa General at 5:30 a.m. Carol set an alarm clock, somehow slept through it, and they left the house at 5:24, arriving at the hospital at 5:46. “I didn’t drive any faster than the cars around me,” she said. “It was a lot of green lights.”
Carol couldn’t remain at the hospital, so she returned home to Zoom calls with clients as part of her job as a speech therapist.
Allan said he had felt like a surrogate father, taking good care of the kidney. Drinking lots of water. Abstaining from the urge to have a couple of cold beers.
Patrick went into surgery about 90 minutes after doctors took the kidney from Allan. It began producing urine immediately.
“You get nervous and anxious and all those emotions, but at the end of the day, my husband is healthier,” Patsy said. “He’s not going to come home and need dialysis to keep him alive. He’s not going to be hooked to machines. He’s on the road to recovery and getting back to the things he loves.”
• • •
The United Network for Organ Sharing has around 4,600 people on a kidney waiting list in Florida. The national list is close to 93,000.
The message from the Neilsens is to never give up. “I think God works in mysterious ways,” Patsy said. “It was not the best situation, but there was never a time I sat here and said, ‘Why me? Why you? Why us?’ Just, ‘Why not? And how are we going to fix it?’”
Patrick and Allan are still recovering from surgery. The staples pull and are uncomfortable, but both men are improving. They wear support bands around their abdomens. Patrick swallows 37 pills each day, much of it anti-rejection medicine for the new organ.
“I don’t mind. It’s way, way better than what I had been doing.”
The Nielsens and the Gutchers are now family. The couples live about a mile apart and have seen each other several times since the surgery. Allan has a big barbecue planned for the July 4 weekend.
“It’s a good feeling for me that God put me in a place where I could help somebody else,” Allan said. “I’ve had a number of people tell me I’m a hero. I don’t think I’m that word at all.
His voice began to break. “I don’t like it … because heroes go out and fight for their country and lose their lives. And I don’t do that. I just helped somebody else that was in need.”
He wonders what would have happened had he not gotten stuck at that first traffic light.
“That is the whole crux of this story,” Allan said.
Sometimes, you just have to follow the signs.