Nicholas Eynard enjoys his mom Holly’s cooking. So much so that she lovingly called him her “chubby chubs” as he grew up.
A thoughtful, quick-witted kid who is curious about engineering and space, and sarcastic around the people he loves, Nich never had trouble gaining weight. But during the summer of 2021, when he was 14, Holly noticed her son’s weight and energy had dropped as he got ready to enter high school.
“I kept saying, ‘Nich, are you sure you're not being bullied,’” Holly said. “He was a pudgy little guy, and he was losing that weight. I was concerned thinking he was being bullied and he kept saying, ‘No, no, no.’”
Worried in the way moms are, Holly took Nich to a well-child checkup at Capital Region Physicians in Linn, near the family’s home in Loose Creek, Missouri. There, nurse practitioner Amber Backes tested Nich for thyroid issues, taking a blood sample. Within 24 hours family medicine doctor Michelle Barg, MD, called to interrupt the family’s morning routine. It wasn’t good news.
Nich’s blood showed high levels of creatinine, evidence his kidneys were close to shutting down completely. The cause: A rare genetic condition called pediatric nephronophthisis that inflames and scars kidney tissue.
“It sprung out of nowhere,” Nich said.
The Eynards — Nich, Holly and her husband, Tim — quickly made the 45-minute drive to Children's Hospital and found Laura Hesemann, MD, Jeffrey Stein, MD, and the rest of MU Health Care’s pediatric kidney specialists waiting for them.
They thanked the Eynards for moving fast, then jumped into action themselves. Nich started dialysis that day and needed two sessions to correct his numbers.
“Tim and I took our first sigh of relief,” Holly said. “We knew it wasn’t over, but it was like, we’re still in deep water, but we can touch bottom.”
End-stage renal (kidney) disease is deadly if not treated, and only two treatments exist: dialysis, which uses a machine outside of the body to remove waste, or a kidney transplant.
Nich had a peritoneal catheter placed — a form of dialysis that uses the abdominal lining, or peritoneum, to help filter his blood — and soon was doing home dialysis. He would set up the machine before he went to bed, check his blood pressure and adjust his dialysate concentration accordingly. It was a lot of pressure, but Nich took on the task and soon got used to it.
“It’s kind of like you don’t notice your bones or skin. You become used to it,” Nich said. “I had decent knowledge of medicine and the human body, because I always liked health. After this, I became a little better at it.”
Though dialysis kept Nich alive, a transplant from a living donor was the ideal solution.
“In the average patient who’s safe for surgery and has no reason not to, kidney transplant offers a greater length of life compared to dialysis, a healthier life and a better quality of life,” said Mark Wakefield, MD, the director of MU Health Care’s kidney transplant program. “For children and adolescents with end-stage renal disease or chronic kidney disease, transplantation is the best treatment.”
Nich’s family agreed and looked around at their options. After evaluating programs across the state, the Eynards trusted the transplant and pediatric surgery specialists at MU Health Care, which included Drs. Hesemann, Stein, Wakefield and pediatric surgeon Venkataraman Ramachandran, MD.
“We got the ultimate care in our backyard, but being that close wasn’t the factor,” Holly said. “It’s that it was so personal, so all about us. Nich was the focus, and as a mom, that’s what I wanted.”
After six months of dialysis, Nich was put on the donor transfer list, and he was matched with a donor less than four months later — quick enough that he didn’t believe his mom the first time she told him.
The donor, Nathan Stuller, is a 35-year-old high school teacher and wrestling coach in Troy, Illinois. He got the idea to join the kidney donor registry while attending a wrestling camp. There, three-time NCAA champion and Olympic wrestler J’den Cox, a Mizzou alum, encouraged the attendees to consider donating in part because his half-brother needed a kidney.
Stuller did some reading on living kidney donations and decided to join the registry. A blood donor his entire adult life, Stuller felt donating an organ, while a big step up, was an extension of something he was already doing.
“My thought process was, simultaneously, how much could this help someone else, and what would it cost me to donate,” Stuller said. “The change it’s had in Nich’s life specifically, how much it’s helped him, has been amazing. The benefits are so much greater than the costs.”
Stuller was guided through the process by MU Health Care’s transplant team and donated his kidney in August, a year after Nich found out he was sick. The Eynards didn’t meet their benefactor until a few days after Stuller’s kidney had been transplanted. He went down to Nich’s room to say hello before driving back home with his wife.
“The minute he walked into the room I went up and hugged him, and everybody's like, ‘Hey, hey,’” Holly said. “I didn't even think about his incisions, all I could think about is, you are my hero. You not only saved my son's life, but you saved our lives, too.”
Stuller’s decision to donate to a stranger means he helps make up just 1.4% of all kidney donations. For him, it didn’t matter if it was family, a famous athlete’s brother or a random person three hours away.
“I have two kidneys, and I'm still functioning perfectly fine with one kidney now,” Stuller said. "It can make a huge difference in somebody else's life, and it has a very small impact on my life. It just seemed like the loving and neighborly thing to do.”
Stuller made some small dietary changes to make sure he keeps his remaining kidney healthy. He drinks more water and eats a little less meat, changes he said were good for him anyway. Meanwhile, Nich is back to his old self: energetic, sarcastic and eating whatever his mom makes.
“After the transplant, he dramatically changed,” Dr. Wakefield said. “A lot of patients don’t realize how bad they feel from kidney disease. He seemed so much brighter and more energetic, and his verbal jabs were stronger afterward. That’s a delightful thing to see.”
Nich is taking his high school courses online because he will take immune suppressing drugs for the rest of his life. But most importantly, his life is his again.
“Now I don't have to drop everything I'm doing to come home and set up a dialysis machine,” Nich said. “I get to live life. I get to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and I just can enjoy everything.”