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Cleofe Zerna greeted St. Michael-Albertville soccer coach Megan Johnson after practice Tuesday morning and pulled two shirts from a plastic Mayo Clinic bag to present as meaningful gifts.

The white shirt read, "Wife, coach, mom, kidney donor," and the blue shirt featured the statement, "No one fights alone."

Johnson received that gift of T-shirts because she donated one of her healthy kidneys to improve Zerna's quality of life.

"I was given a second life by a very gracious, selfless person," Zerna said.

Their co-authored tale of faith, sacrifice and gratitude started with soccer and Zerna's daughters. Rheana, one of three Zerna sisters to play for Johnson, scored a remarkable goal from midfield in a game last fall.

Hoping to see a video replay, Johnson asked Rheana how to get the footage from Julius Zerna, who always records his daughters' games. Rheana suggested Johnson send Cleofe a Facebook friend request because Cleofe had posted the video clip on her page.

Further scrolling of Zerna's page led to Johnson's discovery of "The Big Ask" posted on Feb. 15. Zerna struggled with IgA nephropathy, a chronic kidney disease that progresses over time and can lead to end-stage renal disease. Zerna's kidneys were functioning at only 11%, and she sought a kidney transplant from a living donor to avoid dialysis.

“Before she got her new kidney, it would be hard for her to get out of bed. To see her get out of bed now and go on walks — to see her be herself again, I am grateful for that.”
Juliana Zerna, Cleofe Zerna's daughter

Johnson, also a mother of three, noticed a link at the bottom of Zerna's post for a Mayo Clinic health history questionnaire for prospective donors. She didn't know Zerna much beyond a typical coach/parent setting. Yet she felt a desire to help in her heart, emotional carryover from tragic news that had touched her program. Two 20-year-old St. Michael-Albertville alumni and former soccer players had died in a December car accident.

Sitting one Sunday evening with husband, Jerr, the Knights boys' hockey coach, Johnson was "just playing with my phone when I felt called to fill out the Mayo Clinic survey."

Keeping the process between herself and her husband, Johnson went in March to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for two days of testing.

The Mayo Clinic informed Zerna of a potential donor with no further details. Johnson waited, too, for the phone call she received in April.

She was a match.

Johnson next arranged through Rheana to stop by the house, telling Zerna through text message, "I have something to give you."

Johnson arrived April 28 with a black "happy bag" and handed it to the oblivious Zerna, who replied, "Oh, you didn't have to."

A poem inside explained it all. The last few lines read:

After months of prayers and waiting to see …

My kidney is yours — it was really meant to be

A gift I am honored to share with an amazing mom, nurse, sister and wife

In hopes that those all around you will continue to be blessed by your life

"Oh my God," Zerna said. "It's you."

Zerna's prayers were answered. She and Johnson cried and hugged in the kitchen. The transplant surgery took place in July at the Mayo Clinic. Johnson's left kidney was removed and placed within the right side of Zerna's body. Surgeons opted to leave Zerna's two failing kidneys in place, giving her three. By mid-July, her kidney function had improved to 90%.

The St. Michael-Albertville girls' soccer team opens its season Thursday night at home against Hopkins. Johnson has returned to coaching without restrictions. Zerna is making progress. She has been a registered nurse at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale for 22 years and will resume working at full strength in October. Zerna directs patient rehabilitation as they prepare to return home.

She understands the significance of small but important steps, such as her own 2-mile walk Monday evening. Her family sees a difference, too.

"She's more bubbly now," said Juliana Zerna, a sophomore defender. "Before she got her new kidney, it would be hard for her to get out of bed. To see her get out of bed now and go on walks — to see her be herself again, I am grateful for that."

Johnson said: "It felt good to give this kind of gift. Their family has got a lot of memories to make."

Blessings bestowed on the entire Zerna family dotted the first eight months of 2021.

Cleofe and Julius, who came to the United States from from the Philippines, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Oldest daughter Jucel graduated from Augsburg University, where she played soccer. Rheana started playing college soccer at St. Cloud State. Juliana won a national tournament with her North Oaks Soccer Club team. Julius also turned 50, a milestone Cleofe will reach in September.

"It's really been our year," Zerna said. "Thanksgiving this year is going to be big."