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A Blind Date Leads To Vision

L to R Rich O'Dea, Jennifer Thomas, Quincy Walters, Erika Bragan, Scott Bragan
Spencer Bragan
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

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In a story that has gained international attention, a Tampa blind date set up by Tinder has helped saved a life.

Rich O'Dea and Jennifer Thomas met through the dating app. While they were going out, O'Dea told Thomas about friends he knows through marathon running - Erika and Scott Braga - who were in a desperate situation. 

Erika was suffering from polycystic kidney disease (PKD), so Scott stared a running team called Team Tampa PKD to raise awareness about the disease. 

And when O'Dae told Thomas about this, she wanted to help, by seeing if she could donate a kidney to Erika Braga.

"I did it and wanted to do it, because it's the right thing to do," she said. "It's what we're supposed to do as humans." 

O'Dea and Thomas didn't hit it off romantically. However, Thomas was a positive match to donate a kidney to Erika. 

But Erika, who's had PKD for 14 years, was cautiously optimistic. 

"It was unexpected. I had already had some people tested, so my hopes were not high," she said. "And every time through the process, I kept thinking she would back out."

Many people have reservations about donating a kidney, but there was no second guessing for Thomas. In November 2015, she and Erika underwent surgery at Tampa General Hospital. Erika says she almost immediately noticed a difference. 

"Right after the surgery, I could tell that I had a kidney that actually worked," she said. "The energy I had was impressive. Back to kinda normal." 

Even before the transplant took place, their serendipitous story went viral. From People Magazineto NPR's quiz show  Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

The Tampa residents have actually joked about a film adaptation. O'Dea wants to be played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Thomas would like to be portrayed by Christina Applegate, Erika said Gwyneth Paltrow would be a good fit, and Scott said they all agreed Ben Affleck would be the best choice for him. 

Both Thomas, the donor, and Erika, the recipient, are on disability leave from their jobs. They're using the downtime to talk to the media about their experience. They said that the spotlight isn't easy for any of them. 

"I'm not one to want to share my story, so it's kind of stressful," Erika said. "But I have to remind myself that it's for the greater good and to bring awareness not only to polycystic kidney disease, but donating organs is important." 

Thomas said that she feels the same about the opportunity to raise awareness. 

"For me, personally, I'm really enjoying the attention because it's showing that you can donate an organ and still be completely normal." she said. "And it's been the greatest gift I've ever been given to be able to do that for her."

O'Dea, who went on the Tinder date that is credited to saving his friend's life, said that the experience has affected him profoundly. 

"It's so hard to put into words just how much I feel I've changed throughout the experience," he said. "Just being a part of the experience with these guys." 

Erika had the biggest transformation. She got a new kidney, but Thomas gave her more than that. She also gave Erika a new mindset. 

"I tended to be a negative person, and once Jennifer has kind come in, her positivity is just overwhelming," she said. "It allows you to look at things differently. It allows you to see out there that there's a lot you can do to help people." 

A Blind Date Leads To Vision

O'Dea, Thomas, Erika and Scott are forever connected by a story that began with a blind date and ends with a vision to inspire others. 

Copyright 2016 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Quincy J. Walters is a junior at USF, majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. His interest in journalism spurred from the desire to convey compelling narratives. He has written for USF’s student paper, The Oracle and is currently the videographer for Creative Pinellas. If he’s not listening to NPR, he’s probably listening to Randy Newman.