Giving the gift of life

Former student donates  kidney to retired NB teacher   

Kevin Noyes (left) and Marlin Ness have been close ever since Ness’ son, Eric, and Noyes became friends in third grade.  Photo by Derrick Knutson
Kevin Noyes (left) and Marlin Ness have been close ever since Ness’ son, Eric, and Noyes became friends in third grade.
Photo by Derrick Knutson

Many people can think of a favorite teacher or two they had during their elementary through high school years.

Few can say they donated a kidney to that teacher, though.

Kevin Noyes, a 1985 graduate of North Branch Area High School, forged a special relationship with Marlin Ness, a high school mathematics teacher who taught for 34 years in the district before retiring in 1997, while Noyes was growing up in the Almelund area.

He knew Marlin Ness well before becoming his student as a high school freshman.

Noyes and Marlin Ness’ son, Eric Ness, have been good friends since third grade.

The Nesses have been like a second family to Noyes for about 30 years.

“We were at our farmhouse many nights with the kids,” Marlin Ness said, noting that Noyes’ home was about 3 miles from the Ness’ house.


PKD diagnosis

During a baseline physical examination in 2004, Marlin Ness’ physician noticed something concerning: One of his kidneys was larger than it should have been.

“They couldn’t quite figure it out,” he said. “They just watched me for years, and then they finally said (in 2011), ‘You have polycystic kidney disease.’”

PKD is a disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily within a person’s kidneys. Cysts are noncancerous round sacs containing water-like fluid.

Over time, the disease diminishes the kidneys’ ability to filter waste out of person’s bloodstream, and some of those afflicted with the disorder experience complete kidney failure and have to go on dialysis.

PKD affects thousands of people in the United States and millions worldwide, according to the PKD Foundation.

Anne Petersen, a donor family liaison with American Donor Services, citing information from the American Kidney Fund, said about 18 people a day on donor lists die while waiting for organ transplants, and many of those are waiting for kidneys.

Like many patients waiting for kidneys, Ness eventually had to go on dialysis, but by that point, he knew he’d be receiving a kidney from Noyes.

However, he didn’t know initially that Noyes wanted to give his kidney to him.

Without Ness knowing it, Noyes went to be tested and found out he was a match.

Family and friends of Ness had been tested and didn’t have the right blood type for the transplant to be a success.

Noyes knew in 2011 he was a match, but there was one problem: He needed to lose weight before doctors would agree to remove one of his kidneys and implant it in Ness.

“I worked on it a little bit, and at Christmas, I said, ‘I’m going to do this; I’m not going to fail Marlin,’” Noyes said.

Noyes got his weight down to a level surgeons were comfortable with, and on June 1, 2012, Noyes donated his kidney to his former teacher and good friend.

Noyes is humble about the donation, and said he wasn’t worried prior to the procedure.

“I guess I didn’t worry about it because of the nature of the work that I’m in,” he said. “I work for American Donor Services, and so I work, and have for over 20 years, on the deceased side for bone, skin and connective tissue donations. I look at it as, ‘When it’s your time, it’s your time,’ and if it would have been that day on the table, that’s just the way it works.’”

Ness, however, was concerned about Noyes before and after the donation.

“Marlin worried much more about Kevin than he did about himself,” Lois Ness, Marlin Ness’ wife, said.

Thankfully, the donation was completed without a hitch, and Marlin Ness noticed his health quickly improving, even while he was still recovering in the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

“The kidney worked immediately, which was just amazing,” he said.

He said it’s difficult to find the words to express just how grateful he is to Noyes for the donation.

“It’s hard (to talk about),” Ness said, his voice cracking.

Noyes, with a smile, chimed in, “It was a match, and we were good to go, right?”

Rose parade

Noyes was nominated as one of five Minnesota kidney donors to take part in the Jan. 1, 2014, Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

They, along with seven other donors from across the nation, will walk alongside the Donate Life Float, which commemorates donors both living and deceased.

The float has 81 memorial “floragraphs,” or floral portraits, that will adorn it. Each floragraph represents a donor who gave the gift of organ, eye or tissue donation upon their death.

Petersen, who has been to the parade before, said it’s an awe-inspiring event.

“It’s such a culmination of emotion,” she said of the parade. “Watching everyone stand together and support each other is such an amazing thing. Donation just touches so many lives at so many levels.”

Those who would like to learn more about organ or tissue donation can visit

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