After her brother Mark Koller died from kidney cancer in 2011 at age 51, it set Lisa Kutzke on a quest “to do something in memory of him.”
One day the long-time Stroum Jewish Community Center fitness trainer spotted her client, Thellea Leveque, sitting on a bench at the Mercer Island facility. She was “visibly upset,” Lisa recalled. When Thellea revealed that her father’s kidneys were failing, Lisa offered on the spot, to donate one to him.
“Something came over me,” she says. “It was an amazing feeling.”
Remembering the moment, Thellea says, “It was like a light went on in her face.”
Thellea was “devastated” that day, having just learned she could not be her dad’s kidney donor. A carrier of the BRCA mutation, she had too high a risk of developing cancer.
Moved by Lisa’s offer, but wanting to be certain Lisa was not just reacting impulsively in the moment, Thellea says she contacted Lisa repeatedly to assure her she could change her mind.
“But the answer kept being ‘yes’,” says Thellea.
With her husband Jerry Kutzke’s blessing, Lisa proceeded with initial testing.
“Thellea is an opthalmologist,” says Lisa, and “her father is a retired pathologist, so we had tons of information.”
Lisa spoke to other doctors and donors, and began a correspondence with Thellea’s dad, Gary Kukes, in Long Beach, Calif.
After extensive physical and psychological testing at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Lisa came home to wait.
“I should have been his sister, I matched so well,” she says. Emotionally, she was thrilled “to do this for my brother.”
Both women report a providential feeling surrounded the process. “I knew…everything was going to work out,” says Lisa. “I don’t even know how to explain it.”
For Thellea, Lisa’s offer was “a spiritual experience” the likes of which she’d never had “in regards to a human action before.” She’d been moved by “a sunset, or in synagogue,” but never by the actions of an individual.
“It was a miracle,” she says.
It was October 2012 when Lisa made her offer. In early November she spoke to Gary and later that month Mayo called with its approval. Lisa remembers the call vividly. “House of the Rising Sun” was playing on her car radio, “a song my brother played in his band…and it was even played at his funeral. I pulled over to the side,” she says, “and I just lost it.”
Finally, in December, Lisa and Gary met in person for a happy dinner with Thellea and all their spouses.
After a few postponements, the surgery was finally scheduled for June 18 this year, adding that significant number to Lisa’s sense that things would be okay.
Transplant recipients are allowed to help donors with certain costs, and Lisa is grateful that Gary was in a position to cover the cost of her and Jerry’s flights and their hotel expenses in Minnesota. Lisa’s parents came from Wisconsin, too. And while anonymous donors are kept completely separate from recipients, Gary and Lisa were on the same floor and saw each other after the surgery.
Originally from the small Wisconsin town of Spring Green, Lisa and Jerry came to Seattle in 1985 for a family wedding. The next year, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse, they moved here. After working “odd jobs, teaching PE, gymnastics,” she says, Lisa applied in 1988 to be a fitness specialist at the JCC, and got the job. After three years she began seeing clients at her home. For part of the 1990s she only had her home business and had a lot of Jewish clients. Eventually she returned to the J and in 2006 became the health, fitness and wellness director, stepping down to “just fitness director” four years later. Now she’s back to being “just a personal exercise trainer.”
Lisa is not Jewish but calls the local Jewish community “amazing.” Recalling her first Hanukkah at the J, to which 600 people showed up, “it just blew me away.” She has always found “a helping hand there for me and my family,” she says, “so what a great way to give back.”
Fully recuperated, Lisa has returned to triathlons and gardening. And while she and Thellea had a long trainer-client relationship before, Thellea says “our friendship blossomed.”
Meanwhile, Gary is doing great with his “Lutheran kidney,” also known as the “Koller-Kutzke-Kukes kidney.” To say thank you, he set up a charitable annuity in Lisa’s hometown to benefit For Pete’s Sake (www.4Petesake.com), which helps sick or unemployed residents with expenses. It’s “an amazing gift,” says Lisa, bringing it “full circle.”