For 19 years, Megan Johnson’s positive, energetic presence has brightened classrooms and soccer fields in St. Michael-Albertville as a teacher and coach. This summer, she brightened the entire future of a STMA soccer family by donating a kidney to the mother of one of her athletes.
The donation story begins, Johnson said, with a goal. Not just any goal, but an amazing half-field shot made last fall by Rheana Agujo Zerna, then a senior and the second soccer-playing daughter of three in the Agujo Zerna family. The next day, Johnson asked Rheana if her parents got a video of the goal, and she said her mom had posted it to Facebook. Though Johnson said she doesn’t typically reach out to her students’ or athletes’ parents on social media, that goal led Johnson to connect with her mother, Cleofe, on Facebook.
Johnson didn’t know this at the time, but Cleofe had been suffering with declining kidney function for five years due to an autoimmune disorder, and it wasn’t long after the half-field goal that her doctors said the time had come to look for a donor. Agujo Zerna’s kidneys were functioning at 11 percent of what they should, and the prognosis was beginning to look dire. She had been hesitant to make a plea for a donation in the past, but the news from her doctors led her to post “the big ask” on Facebook.
Johnson saw her emotional post, thanks to that recent soccer goal, and she felt a pull to look into the possibility that she could be a match. Without Agujo Zerna knowing, Johnson underwent a series of screenings and tests by physicians, social workers and other professionals at the Mayo Clinic to see if she was fit to be a donor and a match.
Meanwhile, the Mayo Clinic contacted Agujo Zerna to say they were working with a potential donor, and she shared the news on social media, asking for prayers that this mystery potential donor would be a match.
“That’s when it really started to get real, to know that was me she was writing about,” Johnson said. “Something just called me to think ‘I could do this.’”
At the end of April the call came: she was a match for Cleofe. The Agujo Zerna family was overjoyed and in tearful disbelief that they’d found a donor in the coach they’d known for years.
“It’s really just a blessing and a miracle,” Agujo Zerna said. “I’m just so thankful and so grateful to Coach Megan. Who could have known that my one in a million was right here?”
Johnson and Agujo Zerna went into the operating room just after the Fourth of July, and the transplant process went so smoothly that the Mayo Clinic doctors told them they haven’t before seen a donor kidney begin to function so quickly in a recipient’s body. While the first couple days were tough, Johnson said she has steadily regained her strength and stamina, and she’s now back up to her famously brisk walking pace. She’s also back to coaching soccer, and the youngest Agujo Zerna daughter, Juliana, is among her team of athletes this year.
As for Cleofe, at last check she was up to 93 percent kidney function, from a low of 10 percent before the transplant. While she has some struggles with the anti-rejection medication, she couldn’t be more grateful and thrilled with her new chance at a healthy life. She said the transplant experience has really opened her eyes to how much kindness exists in the world and within her own community.
“There’s people out there who are like Coach Megan in your community, and you just have no idea,” Agujo Zerna said. “Even now I’m still amazed.
There are no words,” she added. “She literally saved my life.”
“Help as Many People as you Can”
Johnson said she knows two people who received heart donations in the past several years, so she understood the tremendous impact organ donation has even before becoming a living donor.
“Overall, the experience has been amazing,” Johnson said. “Going into it, I never imagined it could be so incredible, so emotional, and honestly so easy. I would tell anyone who’s even considering it to do it.”
Johnson said the biggest reward she could get from the process is to see the difference it makes for Cleofe and the Agujo Zerna family, and also the hope that her donation story could inspire others to help people.
“Be an organ donor, or even consider it,” she said. “Or, help in a different way: give bone marrow, give blood, or even give to a food pantry. Help as many people as you can.”