In the heart of Kansas, kidney message was a sign of love

Jim Nelson has painted over the billboard on Interstate 70 that sought help for his wife.
Jim Nelson has painted over the billboard on Interstate 70 that sought help for his wife. Submitted photo

Maybe you saw it out there, on the rolling plains of central Kansas, nestled among billboards for McDonald’s and La Quinta Inns and the Wild Wild West Gentlemen’s Club.

Maybe you laughed. Maybe you snapped a picture. Maybe, like many speeding along Interstate 70, you weren’t quite sure what to make of it.

There was nothing particularly special about the billboard itself. Plain white backdrop. Black, hand-painted letters. Unremarkable except for the message.

“I NEED A KIDNEY 785-428-3390.”

They met in 1970 in the Kansas town of Concordia.

Jim Nelson and Sharon Plucar were still in their 20s, and after hitting it off during a chance encounter at an art show, they kicked off a budding relationship centered on trips to local polka dances.

But as tends to happen with young romances, it eventually ended. Jim, dedicated to a career as an artist, set out to find work in Vancouver, where he’d spend the ensuing years making a living through portrait and commercial work. Sharon, for her part, stayed in Concordia, marrying and going to work at a local bank.

A couple of decades or so later, though, they found their way back to each other.

Jim had returned to Kansas, where he was supplementing his painting with work as a tractor mechanic. Sharon, whose husband had died, had gone to work as a rural letter carrier, delivering mail six days a week across the gravel and mud-caked roads of a small cluster of central Kansas towns.

One day she called Jim up out of the blue. Not long after, he stopped by her apartment for chocolate cake, and it didn’t take long for the two to pick up where they had left off years earlier.

“I realized then that I’d missed quite a golden opportunity years before,” Jim says.

They married in 1992. The ceremony was on Jim’s farm in Jewell County — officiated by a pastor named Jesse James — and it was easy to see that the two were made for each other.

Sharon was as calming as Jim was opinionated. An accomplished cook with more than 150 cookbooks, she had the culinary wherewithal to put them to good use. Sharon was kind, warm — filling a void, as one friend of the couple puts it, “that (Jim) probably didn’t know he had.”

Few were the times you saw one without the other.

They danced at polka halls and festivals throughout the region. They watched “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” and attended the annual Lincoln Day Celebration, when Abraham Lincoln impersonators would fill the town for a parade.

Routinely, they’d stop in at Village Lines, a shop and cafe in Lincoln, where they would sip tea and talk history or art or politics with Marilyn Helmer, the shop’s owner.

And as time went on, they only grew closer.

“They were one of those late-married couples that really were perfect for each other,” Helmer says.

The news came one day in 2007, not long after Sharon underwent some blood work: bone cancer.

Health issues were nothing new to Sharon; she had a kidney removed in 2005 after doctors found a small tumor on it. But this was different. The news hit Jim like a truck, his mind immediately going to the worst-case scenario.

In the end, though, they got through it. It took a year of chemotherapy, but Sharon eventually beat the disease, going into remission in 2008.

The problem was that the cancer had caused protein to build up in her lone kidney, leaving it with only 13 percent effectiveness.

So while they celebrated news of the remission, Jim and Sharon also turned their attention to securing an organ donation.

For most of their life together, it had been Sharon looking after Jim. She was always by his side, gently chiding him about his less-than-stellar eating habits, serving as his de facto business manager. She assisted with the small talk and networking that to Jim didn’t come as easily.

Now it was Jim’s turn.

He dedicated himself to learning everything there was to know about kidney donations. When Sharon began using a home dialysis system, he learned how to help operate it, and when home dialysis was no longer possible, he drove her 65 miles round trip to the hospital in Concordia, three times a week, so it could be done there.

Between treatments, he tried to keep her as comfortable as possible. He made up a little bed in the backseat of the couple’s car, with pillows and blankets, and drove her to one of the local fairs.

Says Glen Lojka, a cousin of Sharon’s, “He worshipped the ground she walked on.”

Eventually Jim reached the Mayo Clinic, which agreed to accept Sharon into its living donor program. Unlike deceased donor programs, which match recipients to organs from cadavers, the living donor program doesn’t have a waiting list. Potential organ recipients typically find their own donor.

Through officials at the hospital, meanwhile, Jim heard of a case in Wisconsin in which a man had posted a sign seeking a kidney donation. Within two weeks, he had secured one.

So on an overcast morning last December, Jim eased his truck off Interstate 70 near Salina. He gathered a few supplies and headed over to a blank billboard he had leased a day earlier, at a discount from a friend.

Jim had made his living as a painter, his work displayed all over the country.

This piece, though, would be the most important of his career.

So as cars rumbled past on the highway, Jim, bundled against the cold, climbed a ladder and began painting the sign he hoped would save his wife’s life.

Almost from the start, the sign captured people’s attention.

Jim hadn’t been quite sure what to expect when he got up on a ladder and painted his plea, but within the first week, calls had already begun trickling in.

The media followed. The Star ran a story on the Nelsons’ quest. Wichita TV station KAKE came to town to do a story on the sign, and in the week after a New York news station ran a similar story, Jim and Susan must have gotten 40 calls.

They came from all over the country (Hawaii, Wyoming, Virginia) and from all walks of life (truck drivers, housewives, college students). Some wanted to know what they could do to help. Others just wanted to let Jim and Sharon know that they were thinking about them, praying for them. Most, though, offered their own kidneys, assuming it was feasible.

The odds for patients seeking kidneys aren’t particularly encouraging.

In 2013, there were 529 people awaiting a kidney transplant throughout Kansas and the western two-thirds of Missouri, according to the Midwest Transplant Network. Only 212 kidney transplants were performed.

The National Kidney Foundation paints an even less encouraging picture: Although there are roughly 96,000 Americans currently in need of a kidney, according to the group, fewer than 17,000 will actually receive one in any given year.

“That shows you the difference in the need compared to donors,” says Brooke Connell of the Midwest Transplant Network.

But in the weeks after the sign went up, it all seemed possible. Jim started to feel like this might actually work. That it was only a matter of time before the right person saw it.

The sign, and everything that followed it, seemed to rejuvenate Sharon, who had borne years of treatment. She seemed to get great joy out of her conversations with callers, making at least one new friend.

“She was her old self again,” Jim says. “Just chipper and positive-thinking, and just upbeat.”

But days passed. Then weeks. Then months.

For all the calls they received, for all the kind words and prayers and encouragement, no concrete leads materialized.

Always, there seemed to be some kind of holdup. One would-be donor was too young. Another was too old. Three people called offering to sell their kidneys, but such a transaction, in the United States, is illegal.

A relative offered his kidney, but doctors determined his health was too poor to make the donation. The fact that Sharon had suffered cancer recently, meanwhile, left her ineligible for some kidney donation programs, Jim said.

Jim still pursued any option he could think of. He wrote letters to universities that were on the cutting edge of kidney research. He called different institutions, trying to get Sharon into experimental programs.

But nothing seemed to lead anywhere.

The final blow came in August, when Jim and Sharon received a letter from a university hospital in the region declining Sharon’s acceptance into its kidney program. According to Jim, the hospital — which had served as a last hope for the couple — said her history of cancer eliminated her from qualification.

Maybe it was the disappointment of the letter. Maybe it was simply the toll of five years of dialysis.

But something changed after that.

In September, Sharon’s health took a turn for the worse. She struggled through a fever and chills for two weeks, something she couldn’t seem to shake. At the end of a dialysis session that month, it became obvious to Jim that she was in distress.

He hurried her to the hospital in Salina, where he spent the night in the lobby, heading up to her room every hour to check on her.

He tried to tell her that night how he felt about her. He knew things were bad, but he tried to hold out hope.

“That night she went to sleep, and I thought she had a chance,” he says.

But the next day, around 2 in the afternoon, Sharon died.

She was 73.

One morning in October, Jim sat inside the Village Lines in Lincoln, grappling with his new life of solitude.

In the weeks since the funeral, Jim had tried to come to grips with the loss. He still blamed himself, even though he knew he shouldn’t. He wondered if there wasn’t something else he could have done.

“I think if we would have gotten her a kidney, she could have made it another 10 years,” he says.

His message on the sign is gone now. One day a few weeks ago, Jim eased his truck to the shoulder of I-70, crawled under a barbed-wire fence and undid the work he’d finished nearly a year earlier.

Since then, he’s driven past the sign twice. On both occasions, tears have filled his eyes.

It brings back lots of memories, some he would just as soon forget.

“It’s a deja vu of the trials and tribulations we went through,” he says. “The hope we had at first, and then the dashing of the hope at the last.”

Slowly, though, he has managed to focus more on the good times of the past 12 months.

Over the phone Friday, he spoke happily of the smile that would fill his wife’s face every time she got off the phone with a stranger who, having heard about the sign, felt compelled to call. After initially painting it, Jim had worried it might prompt harrassing phone calls. It hadn’t.

Even after painting the billboard white, Jim has continued to receive calls from people looking to help.

Each message has served as a reminder. Of the kindness of strangers. Of his time with Sharon.

“I feel very fortunate,” he says. “It wasn’t as long as some other couples spend together, but the quality of being with her just was something that I’ll never get over.”

To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816-234-4039 or send email to darnett@kcstar.com.