Heroic Uber Driver Offers Ailing Passenger His Kidney
An Uber trip took a detour when the driver offered his ailing passenger one of his kidneys
Bill Sumiel was having a tough Friday. It was October 2020, and the 71-year-old, who was dealing with kidney failure and had been on dialysis for a few years, found himself at a vascular center 30 miles from home for the second time in 24 hours. The day before, his brother had driven him to the Vascular Institute in Vineland, New Jersey, for a routine declotting of his dialysis access port, but it unexpectedly clogged again that night.
Sumiel was no stranger to the struggles of kidney disease. He’d been diagnosed with diabetes more than 20 years before, which led to his kidney problems. He was on the transplant list, but no matches had yet appeared. So he continued with his treatments, including the periodic port declotting that had inexplicably failed this time. Without a ride lined up for Friday’s do-over, Sumiel took an Uber to and from his appointment.
Timothy Letts, 31, was driving north to visit a friend when his phone pinged with the request for Sumiel’s ride home. The trip was out of Letts’s way. Still, he took the fare, figuring if the passenger was coming from a medical facility, he likely needed a ride.
When Sumiel got into the car, Letts could see that the older man was lethargic but in good spirits. And as they set out on the 40-minute drive to Sumiel’s home in Salem, the pair got to chatting.
“Bill really lit up the car with positive energy,” says Letts, who shared with Sumiel that he was a proud Army veteran. Sumiel, who works in sales at a company that produces piping, mentioned that in the past he’d enjoyed volunteering at his church and in his community, even serving as president of the city council. But he was doing less these days, he explained, because the dialysis treatments left him exhausted.
Then Sumiel revealed that he was searching for a kidney donor. Letts joked that he’d be a good donor candidate, given that he didn’t drink or smoke. Sumiel agreed, though he didn’t think much of it as they kept driving. Letts, however, couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Letts believes in helping others, so donating a kidney “was something that was always on my mind,” he says. Plus, he already liked and respected Sumiel. So, about a quarter-mile away from Sumiel’s house, Letts said, “I’d like to see if I could be a match to give you a kidney.”
“I was shocked,” Sumiel recalls, chuckling. He was shaking so hard, he could barely write his name when they exchanged contact information. Once inside his home, he excitedly told his wife, “The Uber driver just offered me his kidney!”
After the initial excitement, Sumiel started feeling a bit less optimistic. He was touched by Letts’s offer, though he wondered if it had just been an emotional moment. Would he hear from him? And what was the likelihood they’d be a match?
But Letts was true to his word. He got in touch with Sumiel just a few hours later, and by the next week, Letts had contacted the kidney transplant program. After a monthslong screening process—including an interview, sharing medical records, meeting a living-donor advocate and testing—the results were in: Letts was an ideal donor, and he and Sumiel were a perfect match.
On Dec. 7, 2021, 14 months after they ended up in the same car by chance, Sumiel and Letts had their surgeries. It was a success. Today Sumiel is doing well, working full-time remotely and enjoying time with his family—and no more dialysis.
Letts has moved to Germany to work with the Army’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation department as a civilian. He and Sumiel keep in touch and look forward to the day they can reunite. Sumiel is especially excited. After all, he says, “Living donors are special people.”