A nearly impossible match: Nissan employee donates kidney to save co-worker’s life
Josh Bredeson and Josh Shaffer have been best friends since they were teenagers. Now, their bond is cemented in a way they could have never imagined
Nissan employees Josh Bredeson and Josh Shaffer go way back.
"We've been pretty much inseparable since we first met in eighth grade," said Shaffer, who is the godfather of two of Bredeson's five kids. "We've just always found our way back to each other, no matter where we were in life."
Added Bredeson, who was the best man in Shaffer's wedding: "I love this dude like a brother."
The two are so close that they have an almost innate ability to know how the other is feeling.
When they were chatting over Skype in late 2021, Shaffer could tell something wasn't right with Bredeson, who had been living with kidney disease for three years.
"(Bredeson) was making some comments that I could just tell were off," said Shaffer. "He's never been one to make things about himself. So finally I was just like, `Dude, tell me what's going on.'"
Bredeson said that his kidney disease had taken a quick downward turn, and he was going to need a kidney transplant.
Currently, there are nearly 100,000 Americans awaiting a life-saving kidney transplant1. Finding a match typically takes 3-5 years, and for some, a match is never found2.
Depending on blood type, the chances of two unrelated people being a match can be shockingly miniscule3.
Yet, after just a few months of testing, Bredeson found a close match. Against all odds, it was not a relative.
It was his best friend.
Shaffer, left, and Bredeson, right, are best friends and Nissan co-workers.
In winter 2017, Josh Bredeson thought he had the flu, and he just couldn't shake it.
After he refused to go to the doctor for several days, his wife, Leah, gave him an ultimatum: Go to the doctor, or she would call an ambulance.
Reluctantly, Bredeson went to a nearby urgent care.
"They thought I was having a heart attack or stroke because my blood pressure was so high," said Bredeson.
After a series of tests, doctors found indicators of kidney failure, and it became clear that this was serious.
At age 39, Josh Bredeson was diagnosed with kidney disease.
Bredeson discusses how he learned he had kidney disease.
Even as his kidney function slowly declined, Bredeson thrived as a dealer technician at Landers McLarty Nissan in Huntsville, Alabama, where he had worked for the majority of his career.
In 2018, he won the U.S. portion of the Nissan International Service Technical Excellence Contest (NISTEC) – a bi-annual global skills competition competed by over 50,000 Nissan dealer technicians worldwide – making him the top-ranked Nissan dealer technician in the country and opening doors for potential career opportunities he never imagined.
But as he excelled as a technician, his body trended the other direction.
"Every time I'd go into the doctor, my kidney function was dropping," he said. "The worst and most consistent symptom was the fatigue. I couldn't work in the yard or play with my kids for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time without needing to rest."
By late 2021, doctors told Bredeson that he would likely need a transplant within the next two to five years.
With the stress of a transplant looming, Bredeson leaned on his NISTEC experience to help land a promotion with Nissan's dealer technical support center. In this role, Bredeson would still utilize his technician skills and experience – but from behind a desk at home or at the Nissan Tech Line building near the Nissan Smyrna Manufacturing Plant.
"That was such a blessing to us," said Leah. "To be in an air-controlled environment, without the physical demands that his role as a technician brought, was life-changing for Josh and for our whole family."
Shortly after and by complete coincidence, Shaffer, who is a United States Air Force veteran, began a new role as a data analyst at the Nissan Smyrna Manufacturing Plant, and the Joshes added a new title: co-workers.
Bredeson, left, is a tech line specialist. Shaffer, right, is a data analyst at the Nissan Smyrna Manufacturing Plant.
By March 2022, Bredeson's kidney function had dropped below 20%, and he joined the nearly 100,000 other Americans looking for a kidney transplant match1.
Fortunately, Bredeson has a tight-knit group of friends and family, and many sprung to action immediately.
"I had eight close friends and family submit a blood test within the first month," he said.
Shaffer was among a short list deemed a potential match, which led to the next step in the process. He spent a collective day-and-a-half at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville completing an ultrasound, chest x-ray, CT scan, EKG test, and a four-hour blood draw.
Once the intensive process was complete, the cases for a match were presented to a committee, which then ranked each of the potential donors from best to worst match.
Three months from beginning the process, Shaffer received a call from Vanderbilt while vacationing in Florida with his parents.
Shaffer and Bredeson discuss the emotions of learning that Shaffer was the best match.
"After all the testing, and all the people that had applied, they told me I was the best match," said Shaffer. "There was no hesitation. I knew I was going to do this."
Shaffer called Bredeson to share the news. While Bredeson was humbled, shocked and appreciative, he was worried.
"It became much more real when I got that call," said Bredeson. "I love Josh like a brother, and I was concerned because I know the risk – this is a major surgery, and you can't turn back."
Despite the health risks involved, and the long road to recovery that would follow, there was never a doubt: Josh Shaffer was going to donate his kidney to save his best friend's life.
Bredeson, left, and Shaffer, right, pose for a quick photo on the morning of the surgery.
After a sleepless night, Shaffer and Bredeson arrived with their families at Vanderbilt Medical Center early in the morning on Wednesday, January 4, 2023.
Shaffer went into surgery first so that his kidney could be removed, prepped, and then inserted into Bredeson's body during a separate surgery.
"They wheeled me back into the operating room to do the pre-operation, and there must have been 15 or 20 medical professionals that came in to talk to me," said Shaffer. "For me, that was when it really hit – this was a big deal."
About two hours later, Bredeson was wheeled to his operating room, and the long, anxious wait for both families began.
"It was one of the longest days of my life," said Shaffer's mother, Michele. "We were watching the board in the waiting room like hawks, just praying for an update."
After nearly seven hours, Shaffer's surgery was complete. When he regained consciousness, his parents were there, anxiously waiting to hug him.
"I was still kind of out of it," said Shaffer, "but the first thing that came to my head was, `How is Josh?'"
The two spent the next couple days visiting each other as much as possible, even starting a game to see who could walk over to the other's room the most to help pass the time.
Just two days after surgery, Shaffer was cleared to go home. A day later, Bredeson returned home, too, to begin the road to recovery.
Both surgeries were a complete success.
In early February, Shaffer and Bredeson returned to Nissan, where the support continues to pour in.
"The people that we work with from the top down have been 100% behind us," said Bredeson. "When I was out, my department manager never once asked about work. It was always, `Hey man, how are you doing? How is Shaffer feeling?' It was always positive."
Added Shaffer: "I'm not sure we could have gone through this so smoothly if we had worked somewhere else."
Bredeson and Shaffer discuss life post-surgery as well as the support they’ve received from co-workers.
In July, Shaffer and Bredeson successfully crossed the six-month post-transplant mark – a huge milestone for both the donor and recipient. Bredeson's new kidney function is now over 70%, and a recent biopsy showed no signs of damage or rejection.
"I feel better and stronger than I have in years," Bredeson said.
With both Joshes well on their way to recovery, life is as meaningful as ever.
Bredeson is able to work in the yard and play with his kids again. And Uncle Shaffer, as the Bredeson kids call him, is right there with him – just as he's always been.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, an estimated 37 million Americans have kidney disease, and about 90% of those with the disease don't know they have it4. "Hopefully, this is a story for somebody who may be suffering but doesn't know why," said Bredeson. "Maybe this will inspire somebody to get checked or to become a donor." For more information on kidney disease, visit kidney.org. For information on receiving a transplant or becoming a kidney donor, visit kidneyregistry.org.
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