Special Report: A Gift From An Angel - Northern Michigan's News Leader

Special Report: A Gift From An Angel

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What if your life depended on the generosity of a complete stranger?

That was the case for Dr. Maurie Cone. 

After losing his wife to breast cancer, Cone, a retired Dentist from New Jersey learned about six years ago that his kidney was failing him, and without a donor he wouldn't survive.

A woman from northern Michigan gave him the most precious gift.  

In this special report, Sara Simnitch, and Photojournalist Corey Adkins, take us along on the pair's journey.

"I think I had a pretty good life. We weren't wealthy people, but there was love, and there was always food, and that was important," says Dr. Maurie Cone.

That's how Dr. Maurie Cone sums up his time on earth.

Married for more than 40 years to a woman he calls his, "best friend", when his wife fell victim to cancer.

"My wife had really bad breast cancer, my kids were in California, so I retired exactly 16 years ago, we moved out here 15 years ago to be with our kids and grandchildren."

Maurie's wife passed away about 12 years ago, he stayed in California, near his kids.

"It was the smartest thing I could've done."

But, it was his health that would fail him.

A bad back meant taking over the counter pain meds, he says as many as 6 a day.

"Nobody ever said, don't take it, and I never thought I would ever be in a situation where I couldn't control my life," explains Maurie.

Maurie's daughter, Beth, saw the first warning sign during a dinner party.

"He just passed out. It wasn't his heart, but they said he might have some kind of kidney problem," says Beth.

Maurie says, "next thing I know, emergency guys are saying, are you OK, are you OK? They put me in the hospital, seen by all kinds of doctors."

But, with every test, Maurie's prognosis only got worse.

Beth says, "they basically found out that he had kidney failure, he'd eventually have to have a transplant."

By spring of 2013, Maurie seriously began exploring transplant options.

He was too old to be a candidate for the cadaver list.

Maurie's son, Jimmy, went through extensive testing at UCLA to see if he was a match.

"You have one parent left, and I'm very close with my dad, very hard thinking about the what ifs," explains Jimmy.

That's when doctors discovered a tumor on Jimmy's kidney that he likely would have never known about until it was too late.

Jimmy says, "I was most upset that I couldn't donate my kidney."

And, Maurie was feeling worse. "I started getting some symptoms, my legs were twitching, and symptoms of kidney failure."

Beth wanted to donate, she wasn't a match for her father, but could still help him.

It's called a paired exchange, and, 90,000 people are in need.

"I was cleared to be a donor, and my dad and I were put on 2 national registries."

That chain meant if Beth donated to someone else in need of a kidney, her father would also find his match.

"So, the only way I could get was the paired exchange, where I have someone to donate a kidney to somebody, and I get one from somebody else," explains Maurie.

The chain worked.

"It was amazing that we could be part of this thing where I'd be saving my dad, and I'd be helping somebody else, and somebody else would be giving life to my dad."

"They said, we have a match for you, coming out of the Midwest."

That match was Teresa Kiefer, of Manistee. A wife and a mother who says a powerful book and her strong faith inspired her to become a donor.

Teresa worked with doctors at Rush University in Chicago, for 6 months.

She was cleared to donate to a complete stranger.

Teresa says, "I know my family was definitely afraid, they were afraid for the surgery, afraid for quality of life after."

October 29th, 2013 was the day Maurie got a second chance at life.

"My mom was there too, she was always tearing up. I remember her asking me, aren't you scared?  I wasn't, I felt totally at peace," says Teresa.

The surgery was successful.

Photos show Maurie and Beth tracking Teresa's kidney cross-country. 

"They said, your kidney's at Chicago airport, they had a GPS on it. It's at LAX, then they said it was in the O.R. here, and I got hysterical."

He spent nearly 5 hours in the operating room. "I woke up, my hands are pink, and I got a mirror, I looked and saw color in my face for the first time, in a long time."

All 3 surgeries were successful, and Maurie wanted to meet the woman who saved his life. They decided to meet in person.

Teresa ventured to California, and Maurie patiently awaited his "angel's" arrival.

An emotional meeting for everyone involved.

"Her hands on his back spoke volumes," says Jimmy.

An instant bond was formed with Maurie's family.

"I guess for me, I feel like it makes me beyond happy to know I could do this," says Maurie.

The ultimate gift?

"It means that I'm gonna be around. I'm gonna be around to hopefully see my granddaughters get further along in their lives."