A Kidney and American Ninja Warrior, The Answer to a Trinity Family’s Prayers

November 13, 2017

Hazel Niemitalo is two years old now and handling her new kidney and anti-rejection drugs well. The outlook last year was not as bright for the daughter of Kenny and Maria Niemitalo from Trinity. Hazel suffered from congenital nephrotic syndrome, a genetic condition which causes a defect in the kidneys.

The need for a donor was immediate. So, the new parents started telling family and friends and making pleas through social media. But it was the story shared on American Ninja Warrior (ANW), a reality competition program on NBC, that reached Hazel’s donor.

Kenny Niemitalo started competing on ANW before Hazel was born. At the 2016 competition in Atlanta (his third year competing), his profile story featured the need for a kidney donor for his daughter. Amy Schlee was watching that night from her home in Oneonta, N.Y., and decided to make a call to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to see if she might be a match for Hazel.

Dozens of other good Samaritans made that same call, but Schlee was the match given the opportunity to donate.

“It’s hard to comprehend because we didn’t know her from Adam,” said Maria Niemitalo. “She was a complete stranger who wanted to help.”

On December 20, 2016, Schlee fulfilled her desire to help someone in need of a kidney and Hazel received that life-saving gift at the Abdominal Organ Transplant Program at Wake Forest Baptist.

“It was a wonderful experience,” shared Schlee. “I have no regrets, and I would encourage anyone to consider it.”

Physicians with the Abdominal Organ Transplant Program helped transplant organs in 155 patients, including Hazel, last fiscal year ending June 30.

The transplant program is the largest kidney and pancreas transplant center in North Carolina and one of the 35 most active in the United States.

“Transplantation is the ultimate team sport,” said Robert J. Stratta, M.D., professor of surgery and medical director of the Abdominal Organ Transplant Program since 2001. “These results could not have been achieved without the contributions of a number of dedicated individuals as well as institutional vision and commitment.”

Now, Hazel has her new kidney and her parents remain grateful for so much help coming together at the right time.

“God and the show (ANW),” said Maria. “That’s what I attribute the donation connection to. My husband started competing on the show as a fun thing to do, but now we know why he was on it.”

Media Relations

Joe McCloskey: jmcclosk@wakehealth.edu, 336-716-1273

Eryn Johnson: eryjohns@wakehealth.edu, 336-713-8228