At a family gathering decades ago, Sue Bierbaum’s husband’s uncle, a doctor, offered to check everyone’s blood pressure. It had started because grandma was struggling with some health issues.
When it was Bierbaum’s turn, the doctor wrapped the cuff around her arm and dismissed the first reading. He rechecked it several times.
“You really need to go to the hospital right now,” he told Bierbaum, then 26 and a first-grade teacher. “I’m not kidding.”
She said she felt perfectly fine. She laughed, “Uncle Val, you’re teasing me.”
“No, this is really serious,” he said. Her systolic blood pressure number was over 200. Anything over 140 is considered high.
She made an appointment a few weeks later and found out her kidneys were failing due to a filtering disease the doctors discovered. The worst part was that she and her husband at the time had just decided to try to start a family. Doctors told her it could be fatal for her or the baby if she got pregnant. A few months later, she found herself staring at a paper authorizing an operation that would sterilize her.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “It was the hardest day of my life.”
More than anything, she had wanted to become a mother. She and her husband applied to adopt through Catholic Charities. She says they rejected her with a letter explaining that they had many parents who wanted to adopt who were healthy candidates. The couple appealed and sent letters from Bierbaum’s doctor, to no avail.
“That was another door closed,” she said. A lifelong Catholic, she still won’t donate there.
During a visit to her husband’s cousin in Texas, she learned about private adoptions. Their relatives offered to help with the legal process and their personal connections. In the spring of 1985, the lawyers started looking for a pregnant woman interested in having her baby adopted. Months of waiting and praying and hoping began.
On Nov. 13, a relative from Texas called Bierbaum’s elementary school. A woman working with her lawyers had delivered her baby. It was a boy, and they could come take him home. A school official announced it over the PA, and Bierbaum ran down the halls screaming with excitement. She and her husband flew down to Houston and picked up 2-day-old Ben. It was the happiest day of her life.
However, by then, she was 30 and her kidneys were nearing shutdown. In need of a transplant, her sister turned out to be a perfect match, and the operation was successful.
A few years later, when Ben was 3, Bierbaum and her husband separated; she raised him as a single parent until she remarried when he was 14. Now, after 28 years of teaching first-graders and then seven years of teaching future educators at St. Louis Community College in Wildwood, Missouri, she’s finally retired. But her kidney won’t last much longer.
A kidney from a live donor typically lasts between 10 to 15 years. Bierbaum is celebrating 32 years with her sister’s. “I’ve officially had it longer than her,” she jokes.
She’s facing dialysis and possibly years on a transplant list unless she can find another donor.
Her son, Ben Strake, now 33, had an idea. An investor in two Byrd & Barrel restaurant locations in the St. Louis area, he decided to launch an organ donation campaign. He’s created an online platform, match.mom, where potential donors can find out more information about organ donation and his mother’s story. Anyone who gets tested as a possible match in the month of April will be entered to win free fried chicken at Byrd & Barrel for life. He’s partnered with the St. Louis Blues, who play in the Enterprise Center, which has a Byrd & Barrel food spot. The Blues will announce the campaign during Monday night’s game.
He’s also getting tested himself and is willing to join a donor chain to increase his mom’s odds of finding a match. In that scenario, he would donate his kidney to a stranger in order for his mom to receive a kidney from a bigger pool of potential donors.
A few years ago, Strake connected with his birth mother and family. While they were warm and welcoming, he said the experience made him realize more than ever the opportunities and life his mom had given him when he was adopted.
“I feel like this person has given me everything,” he said, gesturing toward his mom, sitting next to him. “I need to do everything I can to try to extend that.”
He teared up, and his mom put her arm around him and kissed him.
“How am I ever going to repay you?” she has asked him.
“Live another 25 years, and we’ll call it square,” he said.