BEAR RIVER — A hand-carved angel, robed in blue, hands in prayer, has a special place in the Bear River home of Becca Bundy, her husband, Jarrett, and their four young daughters.
Bill Cox presented the carving he made with great love to Bundy not long before she gave him a gift that would save his life.
“I’m so thankful for her,” Cox said by phone Friday, following an appointment with his nephrologist (kidney doctor) in Minneapolis. “She is my angel.”
But, there is yet another angel in this story.
Cox, also of the Bear River area west of Cook, was an angel to the Bundy family a few years ago when the volunteer firefighter and EMT responded to a 911 call at their home.
Youngest daughter, Hadley, then age 1, had suffered a frightening seizure. Cox assisted and provided comfort.
“He was there when our family was in a medical crisis,” says Bundy, a native of Mountain Iron, on a recent day at a Virginia coffee shop.
Helping Cox in his time of need was the least she could do to repay the man who saves the lives of others, Bundy said.
Her eyes fill with tears, often, as she tells of how the two families — two angels in each other’s lives — are now connected, in a very physical, as well as spiritual and emotional way, forever.
“I didn’t know any of Bill’s health issues,” at the time when Cox was the first responder who arrived following Hadley’s seizure, which was determined to be fever-induced and needed no long-term treatment, Bundy said.
She had not experienced anything similar with her older children, and the incident was terrifying, relayed Bundy, 41.
The family had moved to the “extremely welcoming” community of Bear River some years prior, and Bundy was grateful for the quick response of the emergency workers in the rural area. And, for the immense kindness Cox offered toward her and her baby daughter.
Jarrett, who had been fire chief in the family’s previous home of Buyck, later also joined the volunteer fire department, and then learned Cox was battling kidney disease.
Cox had been born with one kidney, which he didn’t discover until a doctor told him about 30 years ago. He had immediately modified his diet and worked to care for the one kidney he had.
However, Cox learned in recent years his kidney function was deteriorating and he would be in need of a transplant.
Bundy remembers her husband saying last spring, “Bill is not looking so good.”
But it wasn’t until October that she found out how dire a situation Cox was facing.
The family was at a spaghetti feed benefit for a neighbor at the nearby Viking Bar on Highway 22 when Bundy noticed the bright lime-green T-shirt Cox, who bartended there a few days a week, was wearing.
It read: “My name is Bill. I’m in end-stage kidney failure and in need of a kidney.”
Cox, 66, a native of Hibbing, explains what that time in his life was like.
“I slept a lot. I had no energy. I’d come home and lay on the couch. I was very fatigued.”
Cox, who had been listed for transplant, eventually started home dialysis “through a port in my stomach cavity” to filter his blood of toxins and excess fluids as a healthy kidney would do. “Every four to six hours I had to exchange the solution.”
The treatment meant, “I couldn’t go too far from home.”
Doctors told Cox he could be on the transplant list for five to six years — which could be too many years too late. Cox also knew that kidney transplant recipients have greater success when receiving a kidney from a living, rather than deceased, donor.
Cox’s T-shirt, the color of organ donation awareness, also stated the blood type of the donor he needed: Type B or O.
“I knew I was B-positive,” Bundy recalled.
She began to wonder if perhaps she could be a match.
“I got a lot of interest” from the shirt, Cox said. “Five other people were tested, but they all had some issues.” His family members also were declined for various reasons.
“Then, along comes Becca,” Cox said.
Bundy was preparing for a 10-day mission trip to Guatemala when she learned of Cox’s need.
“It weighed heavy on my heart,” she said. “Here I’m traveling all the way to Guatemala to help children, and there’s someone who needs help here at home.”
Bundy also thought about her grandpa, who had been on dialysis and never had the chance for a transplant.
“I’ve always had a strong faith. I said, ‘Lord, if this is something I should do, please give me a sign,’” she said.
And, “there definitely were signs.”
Bundy said she continually came across television news stories about kidney transplants. It seemed it was time “to act on what my head was telling me.”
A couple days before leaving for Central America, Bundy visited an online link for potential kidney donors. “I decided I’m going to click on it. I feel like I’m ‘the one.’”
She soon received a packet to start the process of becoming a donor.
Following a series of blood tests, tissue samples, medical appointments, and meeting with a social worker, Bundy was approved as a living donor at the end of January.
“I cried for an hour,” she said. “I called Bill, and he was really grateful. It was such an emotional thing.”
“I was very relieved and happy — and so grateful,” Cox agreed.
The longtime woodworker got to work making the angel.
Bundy, a high school girls basketball and softball coach at North Woods School near Cook, said she also didn’t want to let down the students.
It happened that the transplant surgery was scheduled for Feb. 28, as basketball season was wrapping up.
She and Jarrett, along with Cox and his wife, Terry, met for dinner leading up to the life-saving procedure at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis.
They shared tears and hugs. Cox gave Bundy the handmade angel.
He had asked Bundy’s sister, a pastor, to bless it.
“He called me his angel,” Bundy says, choked up.
The day after the transplant surgery, Bundy visited with her recipient. “He had color in his face.” The gifted kidney was working. “You could see the effects immediately.”
Bundy was released from the hospital a few days later, and fully recovered four weeks later.
Cox was able to return home within a week, quicker than expected.
His medical journey, however, is far from over.
He will be on immunosuppressants for the rest of his life to prevent rejection of the kidney. Because the medications suppress the body’s immune system, his ability to fight infections and diseases is decreased.
There will be many more trips to UMMC for tests to make sure the kidney is functioning properly.
But his angel’s gift has “given me a new lease on life,” Cox said. “I’m now able to plan for the rest of our future. We wanted to travel, and now we will be able to do it.
“I’m very grateful she did this for me. I’m so thankful to her, and to all the doctors.”
Friday’s lab work showed the kidney is working perfectly, Cox added.
Cox and his wife, who have a son but no grandchildren, have become surrogate grandparents to Bundy’s children — Rory, 11, Grace, 10, Piper, 6, and little Hadley, now 4.
“It’s great to see the kids,” Cox said. “We try to stay in touch.”
Hadley has drawn pictures of kidneys for Cox.
In a few weeks, the donor and recipient families will gather for a celebration. “My family and friends want to meet (Bundy) and thank her,” he said.
Bundy said people have called her “a superhero.” But to her daughters, “I’m just mom.”
However, Bundy does hope to “be an inspiration” to others, especially her daughters and the students at North Woods.
“In life we have choices, and we can choose to be kind,” she said, adding that she hopes the girls she coaches “remember me for being kind and building people up.”
The University, a teaching hospital, has surveyed Bundy regarding her decision to donate.
“They asked, would I do it again? I would. Do I have any regrets? Absolutely not.”
“There are a lot of good people out there willing to donate,” Cox said. “There are a lot of good people waiting” for a life-saving organ. Donation “gives people hope.”
The story of Bundy’s gift to Cox has been featured on the “Inspiring America” segment of the NBC Nightly News, on KARE 11 in the Twin Cities, in Women’s World magazine, and with other national and international media outlets.
Perhaps, Bundy considers, someone hearing the story will see it as “a sign” in their own lives. Perhaps it will move someone else to become a living donor, which is possible for both kidney and liver transplantation.
Perhaps someone else will find their angel.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, 13 people die each day in the country waiting for a kidney.
“I feel I was called to be that person on Bill’s journey,” Bundy says, wiping away tears.
The hand-carved angel now sits high on a shelf in the family’s living room, she added — “watching over everyone in the house.”