Two Friends’ Bond Over Coffee Deepens With Kidney Transplant: Part Three

Lem Butler and Nathanael May have become closer since Nathanael offered Lem one of his kidneys, saving Lem’s life and forging a unique bond.

BY LEVI ROGERS
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Photos courtesy of Lem Butler and Nathanael May

Editor’s note: You can find part one of this article here and part two here.

There are some caveats to kidney organ donation. You have to say goodbye to ibuprofen, for one—non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are hard on your kidneys. Nathanael May, since donating a kidney to Lem Butler, has also had to limit his carbonated beverage intake because of how it affects his digestive system. Yet he says other donors have had a wide range of experiences, from needing to limit alcohol to making no changes at all. While every person is unique in how they respond to donation, “whatever it means giving up, it’s worth it, no question,” Nathanael says.

Post-Op Kidney Recovery

It didn’t take long for Lem to start feeling better after Nathanael’s kidney was transplanted into him. His creatinine levels went down from 5.9 to 1.1. Then Lem had to get both of his original kidneys removed to ensure that no form of polycystic kidney disease would remain. He said that the removal of his two kidneys was more painful than the transplant: “I’m texting Nathanael like, ’DUDE, what the hell, you got on a plane after doing this for me? When does it end?!’”

Nathanael wears a shirt saying donate life: living donor. Lem wears a shirt saying donate life: recipient. They stand by a lake.
Nathanael (left) and Lem wear their organ donor and organ recipient shirts with pride.

But, as Nathanael says, the recovery is a relatively fast one. At the beginning of 2023, Nathanael decided to do something to show people that they can give up a kidney and still live a normal life. Nathanael doesn’t “run,” per se, but he’s been speed walking a 5K every day since January 2023. “Just to show people that your life doesn’t have to change after giving a kidney,” he says. He also bikes to work some days, which for him can be a 24-mile round trip. The man is healthier than most people with two kidneys. Nathanael says that while the initial recovery was painful, he honestly feels 100% now. “If I were to time travel into my body now, I wouldn’t know that anything was different,“ he says.

Shared Triumphs (and Pains)

There have been some strange moments, however. On Valentine’s Day morning this past February, Nathanael woke up to sharp pain. “I woke up and I felt like somebody was unzipping my incision where they had gone in to get (the kidney) out. It was this really specific, intense, sharp pain,” Nathanael says.

The May and Butler families pose together on the deck of a red cabin.
Since the kidney transplant, the Butlers and Mays have spent a lot of time together, including a shared vacation on a lake with longtime friend and supporter, Laura Sommers. Pictured from left: Marley Butler, Zora Butler, Emerson Butler, Sarah Petty Butler, Lem Butler, Laura Sommers, Nathanael May, Misty May, Ezekiel May, and Atticus May.

Nathanael texted Lem to ask him if he had experienced anything similar, but he didn’t hear back from Lem until the next day. Turns out that same morning, across the country, was the day Lem had gone in to get his failing kidneys removed. “The time that I was waking up and feeling that pain was the time when he was getting cut into to get his kidneys taken out. And that’s not the only thing that’s happened like that,” Nathanael says.  

Forever Friends and Family

Not only are the two men bonded for life, but their families have become one as well. Their sons play video games across the country together. The former barista judge and competitor are now quite literally blood brothers sealed together in a lifelong bond, each sharing one of Nathanael’s kidneys. “We traffic relationships in the coffee community,” says Nathanael. “But do we ever put flesh to that claim?” 

The two families, Lem with three kids and Nathanael with two, pose together by the lake.
Lem and Nathanael with their families by the lake.

This past spring in Portland, the Butlers flew out to Oregon and Washington to enjoy a shared trip with the Mays at a lake before the Specialty Coffee Expo. They were invited by specialty-coffee industry legend Laura Sommers, who herself was immensely moved by Lem, Nathanael, and their families’ journey, and hard-won triumph. Laura opened the doors of her family home in Washington to the crew of nine, and the group spent joyful as well as reflective time together. On the way back from their trip, Nathanael and his family were talking about the reality that, since polycystic kidney disease is a hereditary condition, it’s possible that one of the Butler kids may get it. Nathanael’s son, in the back of the car, without missing a beat, offered to donate one of his kidneys if such a thing were to happen. He said, “We already know that I’m a match.”  

“People are worth sacrificing for,” said Nathanael. “Love wins.” 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Levi Rogers is a writer, former coffee roaster, and dad. He is the author of Utah! A Novel and has a blog, Levi’s Lost Thoughts.

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