Fans united by search for kidney donor honored

April 8th, 2019

MILWAUKEE -- A desperate plea for help and a supreme act of self-sacrifice combined to produce a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a pair of Brewers fans on Sunday, when Lenny Zwieg and Emily Nowak stood side by side near the mound at Miller Park and fired ceremonial first pitches.

About a year ago, Zwieg, a father of three, wore a T-shirt to a Brewers game that said “Share Your Spare” and posted a photo to a Facebook page chronicling his long search for a kidney donor. It went viral and happened to be the first thing on Nowak’s feed soon after she created a bucket list that included the entry, “Help out a stranger.”

Nowak decided to go big. She went in for a test.

“And now we’re here,” said Nowak, a schoolteacher from the Wausau, Wis., area.

She was not a direct match, but her willingness to donate a kidney began a chain that led to a kidney for Zwieg, who underwent surgery in November.

He called the first pitch “a childhood dream come true.”

“At the point we made the shirts, there wasn’t a lot of hope,” Zwieg said. “This just shows that social media can do good things for people.”

“I told Lenny the first time we talked that he reminded me so much of my dad,” Nowak said. “I just thought to myself, ‘What would I do if my dad were in this situation?’”

So she sacrificed. Months later, after they threw ceremonial pitches to the Aurora transplant surgeons who provided their care and before they sat together and watched the Brewers and the Cubs, Zwieg choked up while trying to explain what that meant to him.

April is National Donate Life Month. Fans attending the Cubs-Brewers game had the opportunity to register as organ donors through Versiti (formerly the Blood Center of Wisconsin).

“It’s hard to put into words. She knows she’s part of the family now,” Zwieg said. “We talk all the time. We’re very close.”