ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – He says it was no coincidence. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran and young father of four, happened to see a card at a St. Johns County cafe.
He'd never been to Leroy's Cafe on U.S. 1 in St. Augustine before, but that morning, he went with his family for breakfast. What he did next, changed the course of his life, and put him on a path to not only save a local woman dying of a kidney disease, but other strangers, too.
The card on the wall read: "A Kidney for Alison." And, it had a phone number on it.
Nicholas Flores didn't hesitate. The 29-year-old pulled out his phone and called the number, unsure of who would pick up on the other end. It was the Mayo Clinic, and he quickly learned about a 65-year-old woman named Ali, who had been on a waiting list for five years -- hoping and praying someone would be able to give her the gift of life.
Nicholas said his wife, whose name is also Allie, was a bit startled but not completely surprised that her faith-driven husband would consider donating his kidney to a stranger.
"We prayed about it and we learned from Mayo Clinic about the safety and everything that's been done over the last 60 years of transplants. Then, she was like 'I think I want to donate a kidney too,'" Nicholas said with a laugh.
Ali, or Alison Eklund, suffers from a hereditary disease called Polycystic Kidney Disease or PKD. Her situation is critical because both kidneys are currently in stage 5 kidney failure. In this advanced stage of kidney disease, the kidneys have lost their ability to do their job.
Since PKD is hereditary, her blood relatives are disqualified as donors; her only hope is to find a willing and compatible donor who is unrelated to her.
Ali said she was surprised when Nicholas contacted her, and a bit skeptical at first, because she had been approached by a number of people who either wanted to sell her a kidney or seemed suspicious.
But Nicholas was insistent and enthusiastic, and she agreed to undergo testing to see if they were a match.
Test after test checked off. It seemed everything was a go, until it wasn't.
"There was a test that came back and basically said that there was something in her blood that just wouldn't work, it wouldn't work for compatibility for me to donate directly to her," Nicholas said.
He said the news crushed him, because at that point, he had met Ali in person and they connected right away.
"I was upset because at that point I wasn't letting down a stranger, now I was letting down a friend."
But, as he described it as "Divine intervention" that guided him to this stranger named Ali, he was also guided to an organ donation program he'd never heard about called Paired Donation through the Mayo Clinic.
Paired Donation works like a chain with the three national Mayo Clinics (Jacksonville, Florida, Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona, and Rochester, Minnesota) allowing those willing to be living donors to be matched with Mayo Clinic patients in need.
Nicholas and Ali agreed to try it, and they were thrilled to get a call back from the Mayo Clinic sooner than expected.
Turns out, Nicholas and Ali were the missing link to complete a 12-person chain of donors and recipients -- ultimately giving six patients a chance to receive a living donor kidney transplant instead of being on the deceased-donor waiting list for several years.
Now, Flores will donate his kidney to someone the Mayo Clinic has found that he is compatible with and Ali will receive a kidney from a different donor who is compatible with her.
"I'm happy because so many people are benefiting as well," Ali said. "You don't want to be the only glitch in the chain and mess it up for everybody else, you know? I wouldn't turn back now for nothin'!"
"I don't know who my kidney is going to, I just know that someone in the United States within 36 hours after my kidney is removed will have it," Flores said.
While Nicholas would love to find out who his kidney will help, he said if that patient chooses not to know who his or her life-saving donor is, he will be fine with that.
"You know, this isn't about me," he said. "I want it to be for the cause."
Both Nicholas' and Ali's procedures take place on the same day -- Thursday at the Mayo Clinic here in Jacksonville.
Nicholas told us he and his wife Allie are "ready to go," but they've been spending time getting the family and house in order before the self-employed handyman is "down and out" for a few weeks after surgery.
Ali, who is affectionately called "Kidney Ali" by Nicholas' family in order to differentiate between the two, said she's excited, but a bit nervous about the procedure.
Still, her passion for the decision Nicholas made to donate, makes her want to share it with anyone who will listen:
"Why bury your organs with you?" she asked. "Why take them to the grave? You know there's a little baby somewhere that has no sight because he needs a cornea. Why would you want to take that to the grave with you when you could benefit this child to live a full and happy life by donating something like that, or a kidney or whatever else it is that you have available to give. Why bury that in a box underground with you, when you could really make such a difference in a person's life?"
Leroy's Cafe in St. Augustine is now a very special place for both Nicholas and Ali. In fact, Ali chose that location to hold a silent auction to raise money for Nicholas' family cover expenses. He's a self-employed handyman, and he'll be out of work for at least two months while he recovers from surgery. There is also this GoFundMe account.