How an NHL mom's kidney donation forever bonded two hockey families
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How an NHL mom's kidney donation forever bonded two hockey families

Apr 04, 2023

A local rink, Stanley Cup champion Ryan O'Reilly, and a lifesaving choice. Watch an all-new "E60" on Mother's Day, Sunday at noon ET on ESPN. (7:12)

BONNIE O'REILLY LIES in a hospital bed at the London Health Sciences Centre about an hour from her home in Bayfield, Ontario. A peripheral venous catheter is affixed to her left hand. A disposable mask spreads across her face, and a blue gown drapes her body. A faded, patterned curtain divides her and the patient in the bed just a few feet away. It's March 3, 2021, and in a few hours, she will undergo a three-hour surgery to donate a kidney.

The recipient of her kidney is 64-year-old Graham Nesbitt, who opened the local rink more than two decades ago as early as 6:30 a.m. on snow days and after regular hours to let the O'Reilly boys get extra time on the ice. Nesbitt managed the nearby Seaforth Arena and ultimately had a hand in developing the talents of Stanley Cup winner Ryan O'Reilly and Cal O'Reilly, who plays in the AHL.

On the other side of the curtain, Nesbitt lies on a white hospital bed. His glasses pushed against a disposable mask, and a peripheral venous catheter protruded from his left hand. His cellphone rests on his lap as he exchanges texts and calls with family because no visitors are allowed in the hospital because of COVID-19 restrictions. Doctors and nurses walk in and out of the room, asking questions, checking monitors and ensuring everything is in place for surgery.

Nesbitt hears Bonnie's voice amid the background chatter. "Do you know your donor?" one of the nurses asked Nesbitt. "Yes," Nesbitt replies.

Within seconds, Bonnie yells, "Yes, open the curtain so we can talk to each other."

The nurse pushes back the patterned curtain. Bonnie and Nesbitt turn to each other, broad smiles peeking out from underneath their masks. "Let's take a picture," Bonnie says.

They give a thumbs up to each other. A nurse captures the moment with Bonnie's iPhone. Then, Bonnie texts the picture to her husband, Brian O'Reilly.

"I wanted to reciprocate his kindness to our family," Bonnie says. "He was very helpful with no expectations to get anything back when our children were young. When I heard that he needed a kidney, I thought, 'Gee, if I could help him, I'd really like to.'"

Selfless is a word frequently tossed around when describing Bonnie. But when the social worker was raising four biological children and dozens of foster children, according to her, Nesbitt displayed true altruism. He opened the rink for her boys and never asked for anything in return. Hockey initially bonded the O'Reilly and Nesbitt families, but mutual generosity and respect created a lasting connection.

When Bonnie's making good time while training for a half-marathon or hears that Nesbitt's golf swing has improved, she knows they've both done something right. This holds true two years after the transplant: She gave Nesbitt a second chance at life, but she felt lucky to be able to do so.

THREE HOURS AND THREE INCISIONS later, Bonnie successfully donated her kidney to Nesbitt. By the time their surgeries ended, the pre-kidney transplant photo had circulated among the O'Reilly and Nesbitt families. While in postsurgery recovery, Bonnie looked at her phone and saw that it wasn't just the families that saw the picture. Ryan had posted the image on social media.

"The first thing I said to Brian was, 'Did the kids ask his family for consent?' I wanted to make sure that the family was OK with this private image and private moment going public," Bonnie says.

That night, before Ryan took the ice with the St. Louis Blues to face off with the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, the photo appeared on the arena's Jumbotron. Just seconds before the puck dropped, the announcer explained how Ryan's mother "gave the guy that used to open the rink for him to skate in the morning a kidney," Nesbitt says. "Then he went on to talk about how it's a wild connection because Derek, my son, spent three years in the St. Louis organization [as a right winger with the AHL's Peoria Rivermen], and he talked about how it was Derek's dad, me, receiving the kidney. It was pretty wild."

But in the hours after the surgery, the recognition seemed to be an afterthought for both Bonnie and Nesbitt. All that mattered was how Nesbitt's body responded to Bonnie's kidney.

As Bonnie started to wake up from the anesthesia, she asked about Nesbitt. "Everything went well." That's what the hospital was allowed to disclose to Bonnie. Down the hall, in another operating room, Nesbitt's new kidney started producing urine -- a sign that the transplant worked. "We almost had to stop the operating team from celebrating the minute you started peeing," Nesbitt recalls a surgeon telling him.

The following morning, the surgeon walked into Nesbitt's room and told him he received an "absolute pristine, perfect kidney."

During a FaceTime call with his wife, Pam, two days after the surgery, Nesbitt told her, "I feel like a 45-year-old. I haven't felt this good in a long time." Later that day, Bonnie and Nesbitt reunited in person for the first-time postsurgery. Meeting outside their hospital rooms in the transplant recovery area, draped in their hospital gowns and masks, Nesbitt thanked Bonnie.

"There's nothing I can say that would ever be enough to explain, but thank you doesn't even cut it," Nesbitt remembers saying to Bonnie.

ON JUNE 12, 2019, Ryan O'Reilly texted his mother: "Hey mom, might want to tone down the St. Louis gear tonight." In a few hours, the then-Blues center would take the ice to compete in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden against the Boston Bruins. "Not a chance," Bonnie texted back in bold letters. "Nobody's going to tell me to tone it down. I'm walking in there proud," Bonnie recalls.

Halfway through the 2019 NHL season, St. Louis was in last place. But Ryan and his team managed to turn things around, and the hopes of becoming Stanley Cup champions became more realistic. The series was tied heading into the final. The O'Reilly kid from Seaforth had all eyes on him.

Before Bonnie stepped into the arena with her husband and Ryan's wife, Dayna, the boisterous Boston fans were booing and heckling her. She knew this would be a long night, but a night that her family had been dreaming of since when her children used to wake up early before school to skate at the local arena.

Less than 17 minutes into the first period, Ryan gave the Blues a 1-0 lead, scoring from between the hash marks on a deflection of Jay Bouwmeester's shot from the point. Bonnie couldn't hold back. She let out a "woohoo!" and jumped up and down.

Over an hour later, the Blues claimed the Stanley Cup. The team rushed the ice, and Ryan held up the trophy while skating around the rink. Bonnie started crying in the stands. Brian embraced his wife as they both wiped away tears of joy. A few minutes later, Ryan won the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"They won the ultimate goal. What he's always wanted," Bonnie says. "I was so happy for him."

One month later, Ryan returned to where it all started: Seaforth, Ontario. This time, he brought new hardware for a parade celebration.

In the hockey town, Ryan was one of many elite players (like 2002 Stanley Cup champion Boyd Devereaux) who made it to the pro level. But his return to Seaforth Arena, just 10 minutes from his hometown of Clinton, with the Stanley Cup was especially meaningful. Ryan knew it would be particularly significant for the man who opened the arena early for him as a kid.

"Many times [growing up] I pretended to have that Cup and being on the ice with it, then you actually have it there," Ryan told ESPN's "E60." "In the arena where that dream started, and it was great. To have so many people there and be a part of it."

When Ryan returned home for a full day of parades, fan photos and family moments, he hoped to see Nesbitt and show him the Cup. But Nesbitt was on a family vacation and missed the festivities. Even without his physical presence, he was all around.

BEFORE THEIR SECOND oldest son, Ryan, was born, Bonnie and Brian purchased an early 1900s schoolhouse converted into a house with six bedrooms. The couple began fostering children before Ryan's birth in 1991. At any given point, up to eight kids could be running around the O'Reilly household. This was the norm. By the time Ryan graduated high school, his family had fostered 47 children.

"We opened our treatment foster home when I was still pregnant with Ryan," Bonnie says. "We moved to this group home. We shared our house with people that aren't blood siblings, and my children don't know anything different."

Bonnie and Brian, a social worker, said they didn't want to have one of those "calm, little peaceful" homes. There were always sports being played, songs belted and routines danced. Outside their house, a big cement pad with two basketball hoops, hockey nets and a volleyball court was always filled with children running around and competing in various games.

"All day, everyday sports," Bonnie says. "Our kids always had somebody to go in the net or people to play with. That was great for them. But we often, Brian and I, would be out there playing hockey games and basketball."

When Ryan and Cal were in elementary school, they started focusing on competitive hockey. This was when Brian began ringing Nesbitt as early as 6 a.m., asking if he'd be willing to open the rink for the O'Reilly boys so they could squeeze in extra ice time before school.

"There was never a question in my mind to not open up the rink early and let the boys skate," Nesbitt says. "I took heat for letting the kids come in and skate early on snow days and stuff like that from other rinks and communities around. But these kids wanted to wake up early, skate, practice, and be great. How could I say no to that?"

Nesbitt adds, "My dad died when I was 10, and I was raised by a community. I didn't have that mission in life to say no. I wasn't going to stop kids from having fun and playing hockey. They behaved and respected it. It's the least I could do."

Nesbitt's wife, Pam, witnessed the countless mornings he'd wake up by 5:30 a.m. to open the arena early for not only the O'Reilly boys but other young hockey players in town who wanted extra time on the ice. "He knew how grateful his mom was for the help that she got," Pam says. "It has everything to do with that. ... He just wanted to give the kids a chance. Kids who deserved an opportunity."

SHORTLY AFTER RYAN returned to Seaforth with the Stanley Cup, Nesbitt's health began deteriorating. After being diagnosed in 2006 with IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger's disease, which builds up an antibody in the kidneys that over time can limit a person's ability to filter waste from the blood, Nesbitt controlled his condition with medication. But in summer 2019, Nesbitt noticed he was more fatigued, and his doctors informed him that he'd need a kidney transplant.

In the fall of 2019, Nesbitt's family made a social media video explaining Nesbitt's condition and asking for a kidney donation. Images of Nesbitt with his children, wife, and of course, him on the ice, graced the screen as his oldest son, Joe, narrated the video with details about his father's condition and why they needed the community's help in finding him a kidney donor. As a result, two potential donors came forward and started the process of determining if they were a match for Nesbitt.

Cal saw the video, immediately retweeted it, and spread the word to his thousands of followers, hockey fans, friends and family. Various responses flooded his inbox. And then, his mom reached out. She hadn't seen or talked to Nesbitt in years. She didn't know Nesbitt's condition had worsened, let alone that he needed a kidney.

Without hesitation, she talked to her husband and said she wanted to help. Within days, she called a doctor friend and asked him, "What does a kidney transplant even entail?" He said, "Let me send over some research. I'll get right on it." Within hours, Bonnie thoroughly read through the materials and thought, "Oh, good. The outcomes are all pretty good." Then she started watching YouTube videos from Johns Hopkins and local hospitals about donors speaking about their experiences.

She thought she might be the perfect candidate, despite still "not really knowing anything."

Bonnie picked up the phone to call Nesbitt for the first time in a long time. Hockey had bonded their families. They didn't socialize much outside of the rink. And when their children grew up, the interactions became fewer and farther between. But it didn't matter. Bonnie made the call.

"We were shocked. We were absolutely elated," Nesbitt says of receiving her call. "Our immediate families were eliminated in the donation process early on due to medical reasons. And then, two other community members stepped up, but they didn't work out. And then Bonnie called."

After asking what felt like hundreds of questions, Bonnie completed the paperwork to become a donor. Then she received a call. "Well, you got a little bit ahead of yourself. The first step is just a phone call. We'll hold on to your paperwork. But first, we must screen you, conduct some calls, blood work," Bonnie remembers a staffer explaining to her.

Bonnie backed it up a step, but she knew she was all in. Growing up outside of Toronto, she witnessed her mother raise 14 children while her husband, Bonnie's father, was in a chronic-care hospital. Learning from her mother, who always lent a helping hand, even while managing a large household on her own, Bonnie never wavered from her decision to donate her kidney. Even when fears of the "what ifs" or worries about the impact of her life post-donation crept in, she remained steadfast in her decision.

"My mother is my role model. I had a mother who would give beyond her means," Bonnie says. "That was always most important. That's how we grew up: if you see a need, figure out if you can help. Sometimes you can, and sometimes you can't. It's critical to me that my life has meaning."

On Nov. 24, 2020, on Bonnie's 60th birthday, she received a call from the hospital: "You're a match."

FORTY-EIGHT HOURS after her surgery, Bonnie presses her hand against her chest and winces in pain. She grabs her iPhone, goes to Google, and types "heart attack symptoms in women" in the search bar.

Lying in her hospital bed, she's overwhelmed with shooting pain, what she imagines it feels like to have a knife repeatedly stab her in the chest. The mother and marathon runner had never experienced pain like this. She comforts herself and thinks, "Maybe the doctors mentioned this pain?" Her Google search didn't yield solid responses. She had to ask for help.

"I didn't want to put anybody out. I didn't want to bother the nurse," Bonnie says. "But then I'm like, 'Bonnie, stop it.'" She presses the call button on her bed. A nurse runs into the room. "I'm in incredible pain," Bonnie explains. "I'm not sure what's going on." The nurse alerts the on-call doctor.

After an electrocardiogram (ECG), and multiple tests, the doctor says, "Your heart is perfect." And then adds, "It was just gas trapped in the chest cavity as a result of having air blown into the cavity from the surgery."

Bonnie, still in pain after taking a Tylenol with codeine pill, thought: "If that was going to be the extent of my pain, I'd be just fine."

After being discharged from the hospital, she often wondered what it would feel like to run with only one kidney. She jokingly thought maybe it would feel different -- or there'd be no difference. ("I did just take an organ out," she says.) But, most importantly, she just wanted to be able to run again. She wanted to be able to do all the things that she had done before surgery.

Six weeks after the donation and the doctor's approval, Bonnie sits on her porch and laces her sneakers. Running made her feel free. When things got hectic at home and responsibilities started to pile up, Bonnie's husband would tell her, "Go have a run. Go do something for yourself."

"I thought, 'I'm going to try running again.' I wanted to get slowly back into it," she says. "I was nervous because I didn't know what to expect."

She took off down the long road near her house, corn fields surrounding her. For 5 miles, she ran. It wasn't a fast run, more like a jog. But she did it.

Every month following the surgery, Bonnie pushed herself to run a little farther, a little faster. Her monthly check-ins with doctors were a reminder of how being a donor positively impacted her life.

BONNIE TELLS RYAN'S SON, Jameson, 5, "You've got me warmed up for the soccer game." Instead of a standard soccer ball, Jameson pulls out a bouncy red and blue ball that seems to be as large as his body. "Do you want a real soccer ball?" Bonnie asks. Jameson starts dribbling in the grass and kicks it straight at his dad in the goal. "Oooooo, Jameson! Good one!" Bonnie yells out.

Bonnie helps Jameson navigate the goal and encourages him to shoot the ball. High-fives and cheers spread around as the red ball flies. "Do you think Grandma Bonnie can score?" Ryan asks Jameson. Without hesitation, Bonnie whips the ball straight into the left corner of the net. "You knew I was going to smoke it, didn't you?" She says with a laugh.

Now two-years postsurgery, Bonnie is often off on a long run or chasing a grandchild while barefoot in the backyard, the grass crinkling between her toes. "If they didn't tell me they took it out, I would not know," Bonnie says. "There's not been a single thing in my daily life that has changed."

Bonnie and Nesbitt regularly check in with each other. Bonnie, 62, can't help but smile when she hears about Nesbitt playing golf, working on home projects and playing with his grandkids. Nesbitt can't help but be excited when Bonnie talks about training for a half-marathon in Ireland and playing hours of pickleball. They both celebrate their children's and grandchildren's successes, including Ryan's impact on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who he joined in February 2023.

O'Reilly jokes about how if Nesbitt, 66, ever yells at the television or gets "feisty," just know that's the kidney taking over. Nesbitt laughs about when Bonnie called him less than one year after the surgery and said she went on an 8K run (about 5 miles) and felt great.

He replied, "If I wake up tomorrow morning and this body says I got this new kidney, and this new kidney wants us to go for an 8K run ... I'll be calling you because this body has never been on an 8K run before. You can have this kidney back because it will drive me crazy."

In July, Bonnie will travel to Ireland to run a half-marathon. It will be her 10th race and first half-marathon since the surgery. She knows that she won't break a personal record. But she also knows that at this point in her life, her race time is irrelevant. Crossing the finish line is all she cares about.

"I think people feared that donation was going to dramatically change my life," Bonnie says.

"That's not been the case at all. I just live with the fact that I'm pretty lucky to have been able to do it."