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

In the second part of this story, we learn how coffee colleagues stepped in to help Lem Butler.

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.

Every day, 17 people die from lack of an organ transplant; 13 of those people need a kidney. Due to a lack of access to resources, less frequent trips to the doctor, and higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, the rate at which black people die from kidney disease is three to four times that of the general population. U.S. Barista Champion and Black & White Coffee Roasters co-founder Lem Butler would have been one of these statistics had it not been for the concern of a woman named Debra Kaminski.

Boston, 2022

Facing end-stage renal disease and three years away from a kidney transplant, Lem wasn’t sure he was going to make it to that year’s Specialty Coffee Expo, but he decided to make the trip to Boston.

“I went to Boston Expo and did everything,” says Lem. “Signed up and volunteered. It was the first Expo since COVID.” He thought it also might be the last Expo of his life—a chance to see friends, like the “high school reunion” that the Expo is for so many people.  

Deb Kaminski, who is the director of foodservice marketing at Pacific Foods, was aware of Lem’s health problems. At the Expo in Boston, Deb asked him how he was doing. She knew Lem through Black & White’s collaboration with Pacific Foods, and Lem had worked with Pacific to get their Barista Series line of plant-based milks going. Both Lem and Kyle Ramage were on the advisory board for Pacific Barista Series and would soon become the stars advertising the product.  

“Deb is one of those people who I cannot hide anything from,” says Lem. ”It was easy for me to share my health situation with Deb because she is an incredibly kind person who genuinely cares about others.”

Lem wears a camouglage hoodie and face mask in a hospital hallway with Nathanael, in a pullover and mask with backpack.
Lem (left) met Nathanael May *(right) through barista competitions.

Nathanael May Gets the News

Not long after hearing about Lem’s grim diagnosis, Deb saw Nathanael May, a competition barista judge and employee of Pacific Foods, who had helped build the specialty-coffee advisory panel for Pacific Barista Series. Nathanael also knew Lem well through the many regional barista competitions Lem had competed in, many of which Nathanael himself had judged.  

“Nathanael always stood out as this big stoic figure with the bald head and stern face,” says Lem about first meeting him. “His poker face was very frightening.” 

Nathanael remembers being impressed with Lem from the moment he saw him compete, and the two had become good acquaintances over the years.   

“It turned out to be a good thing that I couldn’t hide my health from Deb,“ Lem says, “because she in turn shared it with Nathanael.“

Nathanael remembers Deb saying to him in Boston at the Pacific Foods booth, “You’re not going to believe this, Nathanael. After all that he’s been through, Lem Butler needs a heart transplant now too. Hasn’t he suffered enough?” 

“A heart transplant!” Nathanael thought, “that’s awful.” After some initial confusion, he learned it was not a heart transplant Lem needed, but a kidney transplant.  

“Well, I could do that,” Nathanael thought.  

Nathanel and Lem pose together for a photo.
Nathanael ended up being a match with Lem for a kidney transplant.

Nathanael’s Offer

Later that day at Expo, Nathanael found himself standing next to Lem himself at the Pacific booth. As Nathanael tells it: “A couple hours after learning about Butler’s need for a kidney transplant, I found myself standing next to Lem, and there just happens to be, in all of the madness of Expo, a lull moment, and we’re standing next to each other, and no one is around us for the first time. And I just looked over and I was like, ‘Hey man, I’m so sorry if I wasn’t supposed to know this, but do you really need a kidney transplant?“

“Yeah, I do,“ Lem said.  

“And then I was like, “‘Well, you should have mine,’” Nathanael says. 

“And if you talk to my wife,” Nathanael continues, “you will find out that what I do is, I say things first, and then I think of the ramifications after.”  

Lem immediately started crying.  

“I broke down,” Lem says of that moment. “I’m emotional now just thinking about it. Him saying that, just to be so selfless. I was floored. I knew he might not be a match, but in my head just the idea was incredible.” 

Nathanael and Lem pose in front of a clear lake refelcting the blue and partly clouded sky on its surface.
On December 1, 2022, Nathanael flew from Portland, Ore., to Durham, N.C., where his kidney would be transplanted into Lem.

A Perfect Match for Lem

Months of testing and assessment followed. “And beyond belief, I was a match,” says Nathanael. ”My kidney would potentially work in his body.” 

So, on December 1, 2022, Nathanael flew from Portland, Ore., to Durham, N.C., where his kidney would be transplanted at Duke University. The timing couldn’t have worked out better.  

By November 2022, Lem’s health had continued to decline. He had lost twenty pounds, couldn’t keep food down, and had tremendous swelling in his hands and feet.  

“So I flew to North Carolina at the end of November,” Nathanael says, “and on December 1, 2022, at Duke University Hospital, my left kidney made its way from my torso to Lem’s, and a little piece of me started working where he needed it to.”  

Stay tuned for part three, coming soon to Barista Magazine Online.

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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