MONROE (WKOW) -- A Green County judge had fewer than five years to live as he waited for a kidney transplant from a living donor, but a message from a near-stranger gave him new life.
Judge Jim Beer said he discovered in his 60s that he'd been born with one kidney, so when that one started to fail, he wasn't sure how much time he'd have left.
"I knew that I had some progressive kidney problems but they didn't know how fast eventually it would go and at the end, it really went fast," he said.
Search for a match
Doctors said he needed a living donor, but Beer said finding one proved far more difficult than he expected.
"My daughters all were tested and none of them were a match or were able to. My sister died when she was 19," he said. "And there basically was no one else."
Doctors suggested he widen his search.
"They said, 'Well, one person got a shirt that said, 'I need a kidney' and walked around Disneyland.' And I thought well, that did not sound like something I wanted to do," Beer said.
Instead Beer enlisted his son's help and started a Facebook page to share his story.
"We got a lot of responses from people, a lot of responses," he said. "I mean we got responses from Texas and New York and I had two people from Indonesia wanting to sell me a kidney."
A hometown answer
Far closer to home, Kelli Mueller came across his post, and couldn't get it out of her head.
"He has a 12-year-old son," she said. "Just like my husband and I have a 12-year-old daughter that they go to school together and his wish was to see his son graduate."
She reached out to Beer personally, saying she would get tested, but she said she tried to keep it a secret from everyone else.
"I didn't actually tell my husband until a week before I went to UW to get tested," she said.
Beer and Mueller had met before, but they both say they weren't exactly friends.
"I remember she was in 4H with my kids," Beer said.
But Beer said he was ready to accept Mueller's generosity with open arms and months after he posted his story, Mueller learned she was a match.
"I was curious on how many people were actually tested for him and [the doctors] told me over 50," she said. "But I was the one that had the go-ahead."
At that point, Mueller said there was no hesitation.
"I've done some pretty crappy things in the past," she said. "We've all made mistakes but they're lessons learned and I want to move forward and do something for my kids to know that I did."
They scheduled their surgery in October.
"I guess meeting the surgical staff and having Kelli wave in the door when she came in, that's when I knew, it was really gonna happen," Beer said.
The surgery was a success and while both faced slower than anticipated recoveries, Mueller and Beer said they're both rebuilding their lives.
"Everybody tells me my color's returned," Beer said.
Mueller went back to work weeks ago, and Beer plans to return on December 20.
"My new kidney which I've named Angel, after my donor," he said. "It's working well."
As for that donor, Mueller said it's been a healing process as well. She said one of the reasons she reached out to Beer was to atone for part of her life she isn't proud of.
"There's some that are shocked that I gave a kidney you know especially to a judge," she said. "The past doesn't define you. You are a human. Everyone makes mistakes but you can come out on top and you're the maker of your own history."
Though they were near-strangers before the donation, Mueller and Beer said the experience has formed a lifelong friendship.
"I owe her my life," Beer said. "Certainly that changes a relationship."
"He's always on my mind. I constantly worry about him... the good, the bad, the ugly," she said. "He's always going to be a part of my life."
Now Mueller and Beer hope their story can spark inspiration. While neither of them can donate kidneys, they want others to consider donation.
More than 2,300 in Wisconsin alone are still waiting for a kidney, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Living donations make up less than 5 percent of transplants in the United States.