ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – A St. Johns County man who served in the Marine Corps, then gave of himself as a kidney donor, is now on a mission to get others to help someone who needs a hand.
While Nicholas Flores’ organ donation helped save another's life, he believes it had a profound impact on his life as well.
“I believe my life was changed more than anybody else’s,” Flores said.
Six months into his recovery from the surgery to remove one of his kidneys, Flores said he is feeling great, and is inspired to do more.
"Maybe this is the first day of the rest of my life to be able to understand what it's really like to serve people, truly serve people," Flores said.
The journey started when Flores saw a card on the wall of a St. Augustine restaurant. The card read, “A Kidney For Allison,” and included a phone number. The card was aimed at finding a donor to help 65-year-old Alison Ecklund. Flores called the number and answered a life-saving need.
Extensive testing suggested that Flores was a perfect match for Ecklund. At the last minute, though, there was something that made the two incompatible for a kidney donation. Then, Flores learned about a Mayo Clinic program called paired donation.
He was placed into the program, completing a chain of donations involving patients at all of Mayo Clinic’s locations across the country -- in Jacksonville, Minnesota and Arizona. Ecklund got her new kidney, and a new chance at life, from someone in Arizona. Flores’ donated kidney helped a man in Minnesota.
“Nick did fabulous as a donor,” said Christine Schneider, Mayo Clinic’s living donor coordinator. She called Flores a shining example, as he helped save multiple lives through the clinic's program.
“It impacts the person that they directly are donating to, or in a paired exchange, that can create the opportunity for multiple people to get transplanted, all because one person takes that step to move forward to do this,” Schneider said.
“He’s very inspiring to me, and I’m sure to others as well,” Schneider added. “I mean, he has taken off in such a great direction, to be an advocate for organ donation.”
Flores said going through the organ donation process changed him.
"I wanted to see the ripple effect from something that I did, and it wasn't to give me the glory,” said Flores. “Ultimately it was to see how humanity, how communities, could serve other people."
Since the surgery, Flores has done a lot of praying and planning. Along with his wife Allie and their young boys, he has come up with a foundation, called “Do Something St. Augustine.”
"Do something to serve, do something to help someone else, in any capacity that you feel inclined to do so,” Flores explained. “Whether it's raking leaves at your neighbor's house, or donating a kidney, or just being there to support a friend or a stranger. And I just thought maybe if I did this, and I inspired at least one person to serve in some capacity, to do something to be able to impact somebody else's life, that could take off."
Soon after undergoing surgery, Flores started running, and training for his first marathon -- the Marine Corps Marathon in the nation’s capital. He finished the marathon along with his wife, Allie, who has run multiple marathons. The two met while he was in the Marine Corps.
"I thought, what better thing to do to show people that donating an organ, specifically a living kidney donation, what better way to show that it's a safe thing to do, to turn a non-marathon runner into a marathon runner, four months after donating," Flores said. “It was brutal, not from the kidney aspect of it, but the fact that it’s a marathon!”
Flores, who deployed with the Marine Corps to Iraq and took part in the global war on terrorism, said he actually surprised himself with his ability to run.
“With all my trials and tribulations in the Marine Corps, through my body and everything that I was kind of left with when I got out, I never thought that I would ever run like that again,” Flores said. “Or run period."
Just three to four weeks after donating a kidney, Flores was on the mend.
"Other than the fatigue, other than just being tired more so than usual, I felt completely fine, if not better,” Flores said. “It didn't take very long at all, like I said, I started my marathon training almost to the day six weeks after I walked out of the hospital. So that was, that was amazing to me."
Far beyond the physical impact, Flores was surprised when he realized his decision to donate his kidney had a far-reaching impact on others -- to serve.
"Immediately after the surgery when I had, you know, aches and pains and things like that, I remember praying and everything was fine,” said Flores. “I didn't feel any sense of regret."
Obviously, Flores can’t donate his other kidney, but said he would make that type of sacrifice again.
"I remember thinking to myself if I could do this 10 times over I would! Because I know that God can use me in order to help somebody, and able to serve somebody,” Flores said. “So it was all worth it."
Flores said he’s happy to know that the kidney recipient he initially matched with, Ecklund, as well as the man in Minnesota who received his kidney, are both doing well.
His foundation’s first event, a 5K run, is planned for June 22 somewhere in the St. Augustine area. Proceeds will go to support someone who is either on the donor or recipient side of a living organ transplant.
For information on becoming a living donor through the Mayo Clinic’s program, visit www.livingdonormc.org.