Taesha was ready to quit online dating when she stumbled on Travis’ profile.
Taesha, a 33-year-old analyst for a computer software company, had been on a few awkward dates since moving to Lenexa from Portland, Ore. So when she found Travis, an acupuncturist with clear blue eyes and a trusting smile, she didn’t expect him to be The One.
All Taesha knew about Travis was that he was 29 and lived in Kansas City. The bio on his clinic’s website said he specialized in helping people who have kidney disease, like him.
After exchanging a few messages, they decided to meet at an Olathe restaurant, Granite City. Just stay for 10 minutes , Taesha told herself on the drive there.
When she walked in, he smiled and reached out his hand. She was even more beautiful than he’d imagined.
Once they started talking, Taesha and Travis discovered how much they had in common. They both loved spending time with family, working out and volunteering.
Taesha blushed and fumbled her words. Travis was intrigued by everything about her.
“Even the smallest detail,” he says.
After an hour, Taesha said she had to go home and wrap presents for her mom’s birthday, which was the truth. That night, Travis deleted his online dating profile. He didn’t need it anymore.
In the nine months since their first date, Taesha Benson and Travis Spire-Sweet have become closer than most couples. Last week, they underwent surgery at the University of Kansas Hospital so that Taesha could donate one of her kidneys to Travis.
If the transplant succeeds — and so far, it has — Travis will have a shot at 15 to 20 more years of life.
Travis’ mom didn’t know if her son would live to see his first birthday.
A birth defect destroyed one of his kidneys and left the other barely functioning. Doctors told LaVera Spire that if Travis survived the first month, he’d need a transplant by the time he was 14.
“He fought for his life,” LaVera says.
Travis defied his doctors’ expectations. He grew up in St. Joseph, playing baseball, basketball and soccer just like his healthy fraternal twin brother, T.J.
As a kid, Travis knew he had to drink a lot of water and be careful when he boxed with friends.
“Hit me on my left side,” he’d tell them, “there’s no kidney there.”
Doctors monitored his kidney function. Travis got used to needles and the sterile smell of hospitals.
LaVera Spire looked for ways to extend the life of her son’s kidney. When Travis was 13, she convinced him to try acupuncture, an alternative medicine that involves inserting thin needles into specific points in the body. Persuading Travis wasn’t easy.
“You try to convince a kid that sticking needles anywhere is a good idea,” he says.
But after the first treatment, Travis felt a deep calm he hadn’t known since his father died. Travis and T.J. were 11 when their father, Michael, had a brain aneurysm. Travis says he and his brother were too young to grasp what they had lost.
“How we dealt with it was, ‘He’s on a trip.’ ” Travis says. “ ‘He’s on a trip for a long time.’ ”
Acupuncture, Travis says, helped him accept his father’s death and find purpose in his own life. Here was something he could do to help himself and other people feel better when nothing else would.
At 13, Travis had found his calling.
After high school, he studied the human body in premed courses at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, then moved to Denver to attend the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In 2009, Travis moved back to Kansas City and started working for his first acupuncturist, Chris Powell. Travis started treating people like Jon Barnett, an AIDS patient dealing with crushing pain and anxiety.
“I have a hard time calming my brain and mind and spirit,” Jon says. “Meditation is hard for me.”
Acupuncture, Jon says, forced his mind and body to be still. Talking with Travis was healing in its own way.
Outside of work, Travis started a support group called Kidney Talk and advocated for kidney patients in Washington, D.C. He started planning a free acupuncture clinic for people on dialysis.
Then he met Taesha.
A few days before their first date, Taesha heard a story about organ donation on the radio. When she found out how many men, women and children are on waiting lists for kidney donations — more than 95,000 in the United States — she felt compelled to help. But she didn’t know anyone who needed a kidney.
At that time last spring Travis was healthy and strong. But, as his relationship with Taesha blossomed, his remaining kidney started to give out. By summer Travis felt like he was living in a fog. He lost his keys and missed exits while driving. His hands shook, his skin paled and he felt tired all the time.
The worst part was the gout — uric acid buildup in Travis’ bloodstream caused his joints to ache and throb. Simple daily activities like walking or shaking hands became excruciating.
“It’s the most painful thing you could experience,” Travis says. “Every time your heart beats, it’s like someone taking a hammer and slamming a joint.”
He couldn’t take pain medicine — it would have damaged his failing kidney — so Travis used acupuncture to combat the pain. Some nights, he fell asleep in a recliner with needles stuck in his big toe.
He tried everything he could to keep his kidney alive and working. High blood pressure medication, baking soda, Tums with every meal. He amped up his workouts like a warrior preparing for battle.
Travis hid his symptoms well. When he wasn’t hungry, Taesha brought him lunch at work. When he was too tired to go out on the weekends, they stayed home and watched movies.
Taesha didn’t realize how sick he was until June, when they were driving home after a day at the Symphony in the Flint Hills.
They traveled through the vast prairie under a blanket of stars and talked about life and death.
Travis opened up to Taesha and told her that if he didn’t get a kidney transplant soon, he would have to go on dialysis. That he wasn’t sure if he’d live past 30.
His body is shutting down , Taesha remembers thinking. He’s dying .
She realized that the man she was falling in love with was fighting for his life. The thought that he might not win — that no one was stepping up to save him — made her so angry. Someone should do something , she thought. Then, Why not me?
She planned a fundraiser for Travis with his friend Kelly Morken, securing a venue and gathering donated items for a silent auction. Jon Barnett, Travis’ acupuncture client, offered a rug he crocheted when he was too sick to do anything else.
The rug fetched $200, and the event raised $26,000 for a fund to help cover the transplant Taesha hoped Travis would get. Meanwhile, several friends and family members had stepped forward to get their blood and tissue types tested. None of them matched Travis.
He was humbled.
“My whole life was figuring out how to help myself,” he says, “so that other people wouldn’t have to.”
Planning the fundraiser brought Travis and Taesha closer together. At the end of the summer, they found a cheap flight to Florida, so they went to the Keys. They went paddleboarding and kayaking and watched sunsets from the beach.
Taesha decided that she wanted to get tested, too. She was shocked to find out that she was an ideal match.
“I was excited,” she says, “but I was scared.”
The transplant team at the University of Kansas hospital sent Taesha a huge packet of information with statistics and donor stories.
Everyone — including Travis — told her the same thing: “You don’t have to do this.”
Taesha, determined to make an informed decision, dove into research.
She learned that if she chose to become a living donor, Travis’ health insurance would cover the cost of her surgery and six-week recovery. That donating a kidney would not change her life expectancy, but that she would have to be extra careful with her remaining kidney. That the operation required doctors to cut into two of her body’s largest blood pathways.
She learned extending Travis’ life meant risking her own.
Taesha doesn’t like risk, and she hates needles. So the idea of trusting another human being to open her body and remove a vital organ completely terrified her.
“I’m not worried about scarring,” she told a doctor at an appointment last month, “I’m worried about waking up.”
But Taesha’s faith eventually conquered her fears. Talking to Coral Norton, a 21-year-old living donor from Wichita, helped her make the decision to donate.
Coral donated a kidney in December to her friend’s father, a man she’d never met before. She says the decision required a lot of soul-searching.
“After thinking about every pro and con and possible horrible outcome, I still felt it was the right thing to do,” Coral says. “I had the chance to totally change someone’s life.”
Ultimately Taesha felt the same way. Before the surgery she said she knew deep down that she wanted to give her kidney to Travis, no matter how their relationship unfolded. The decision, she said, was bigger than them both.
Two and a half years ago, Travis became a father. His relationship with Jackson’s mom didn’t last, but that didn’t keep Travis from driving nine hours to the mountains every month to spend time with his son.
“I love that little guy more than life itself,” Travis says. His biggest fear is that Jackson will know the pain of losing his father at a young age.
“I had my dad around for 11 years, and I barely have enough memories to fill a sheet of paper,” Travis says.
In a way, Taesha can relate to that — she says she doesn’t like to talk about it, but she knows what it’s like to have an inconsistent father figure. So when she decided to donate a kidney to Travis, it wasn’t only about getting more time with her boyfriend. It was about Jackson getting more time with his father.
It was about giving something invaluable to everyone who loves Travis.
“It was unbelievable that she could be so caring and so unselfish,” LaVera says.
Travis’ friends are equally grateful. Eric Kleoppel, Travis’ best friend from college, says Taesha and Travis are a perfect match in so many ways. That they found each other, he says, feels like fate.
“I’m not too religious,” he adds, “but there are some things that happen for a reason.”
Travis never asked Taesha to give him her kidney. He says he was blown away by her offer.
“It made me step back and think, ‘This person is willing to give an organ to save your life, and you’ve only known them six or seven months,’ ” he says. “I have more trust in her than for anyone.”
Travis and Taesha went together to appointment after appointment. He distracted her during blood draws, and she stood by during his scans. They filled out paperwork and wills together and held hands in waiting rooms and hospital corridors.
She went to Target and bought them cheap slippers that they could wear in the hospital. Hers had Snoopy, the Peanuts character, on them.
The stressful process pulled them close, fast.
Taesha was scared. She ran to calm her anxiety about the procedure and what people would think about her extremely personal decision.
“I was afraid of judgment because I’m his girlfriend,” Taesha says. “People tell him, ‘When are you going to propose?’ Or they say (to Taesha), ‘You’d better get a ring for this.’ ”
She’s not motivated by selfish reasons, says the couple’s friend Kelly Morken.
“We live in such a self-serving society that people can’t imagine giving an organ without something in return,” Kelly says. “She’s expecting nothing except a healthier, longer life for Travis.”
In the days leading up to last week’s surgery, Travis and Taesha did all the things they wouldn’t be able to do during their six-week recovery.
He ate sushi, rare steaks and raw cookie dough — foods that are strictly off-limits when you’re on the drugs that keep your body from rejecting another person’s organ.
Travis and Taesha had so many people to see before the surgery, but they made sure to carve out time alone. They spent a date night at Justus Drugstore, a romantic restaurant in Smithville, and went for massages the day before the surgery.
At 5:30 a.m. the next day, the couple went with a small group of family members and friends to the University of Kansas Hospital.
They clutched each other for comfort as they checked in. Fear was obvious on Taesha’s face.
A nurse took them to a room with two beds, where they changed into hospital gowns and waited for Taesha’s anesthesiologist. She would go first.
Taesha cried as she hugged her mom and sister.
Right before nurses took Taesha to the operating room, the couple were alone for a moment. They lay on separate hospital beds as nurses administered their IVs.
They gazed at each other one last time.
“I was worried about him,” Taesha says, “and he was worried about me.”
As nurses wheeled Taesha out of the room, Travis’ composure dissolved. She saw him breaking down in tears right before the drugs kicked in.
About an hour later, Travis followed his girlfriend into the operating room. There, two surgeons worked to connect Taesha’s healthy kidney to blood vessels in Travis’ lower torso.
The surgery was successful, and by the early afternoon, Travis and Taesha were side by side in recovery. They couldn’t speak, so they passed notes to each other.
“Snoopy, I like your kidney,” Travis wrote to Taesha, who was wearing her new slippers.
Eventually they were taken to separate rooms on the same floor. The next day Taesha was in a lot of pain, but she managed to sit up, get out of bed and pad slowly down the long hallway to see Travis.
When she walked in, he smiled and reached out his hand. She was even more beautiful than he’d imagined.