by Brendan Dunne
Matt Neal wasn’t expecting to gain viral Internet fame when he posted a joke about trading his adidas Yeezy 350 Boost sneakers for a new kidney in a Facebook sneaker group.
“This wasn’t some social media ploy that I thought was gonna pan out,” Neal, 26, of Ann Arbor, Mich., said in an interview. “I posted it in maybe three shoe groups, that’s it.”
On Friday, Aug. 27, Neal, who is living off disability payouts and earns extra cash by selling sneakers online, made his initial appeal: he would trade his size 10 pair of the Kanye West sneakers for one working kidney. From there, the sneaker Internet ran with it. Sites like this one picked up on the story, mainstream news outlets took notice, and Neal’s Facebook was suddenly flooded with hundreds of friend requests and messages from people willing to help.
“I didn’t expect it to blow up like this,” Neal said, adding that his phone was overwhelmed with notifications from Facebook as his story began to spread. He’s hopeful that one of the many strangers offering their organs will be a match — Neal needs a donor compatible with his B+ blood type.
Lexie Molter and anyone else that wanted to see it!I want to thank TMZ for making this a positive story, at first I thought Harvey was going to go People's Court on me!!Posted by Matt Neal on Monday, August 31, 2015
Nobody in his immediate family is a match, but his newfound Internet fame gives him a much wider pool to draw from. "My mom has medical issues to where she can’t donate. My grandfather and grandmother can’t donate. It’s more of, if I could have ten people get tested that were compatible, maybe one out of those ten people might be compatible and then I would go from there," he said. "I’ve been on dialysis for two years now and the wait list in Michigan is five to seven years for a dead donor."
Neal’s kidney issues date back to 3rd grade when a bad case of strep throat turned into IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease. Two years ago, his doctors let him know he had two failing kidneys and that he needed to be on dialysis.
Donating a kidney is an arduous process. Not only does the person need to be a blood type match, but a potential donor needs to go through a series of tests before the transplant surgery actually takes place.
"It’s a really big step. All the people that are offering under the age of 21, the first thing I say is they need to talk to their parents," Neal said. "My little brother is 19 and he wanted to do it. I wouldn’t even let him go get tested cause he’s only 19 years old. If he has kids one day he wouldn’t even be able to give them a kidney in case something happened. It’s a huge decision."
Neal is advising those eager to help to get in touch with the University of Michigan Hospital, where the transplant will take place if things go his way. He won’t be able to know how many Internet strangers actually go through with the testing process, but he’ll know if there’s a match.
Gina Bergmooser, the nurse manager at the hospital's transplant center, says she's never heard of someone trying to exchange shoes for an organ. "Not necessarily," Bergmooser said when asked if she'd ever seen someone make such a trade. "I've heard of people doing strange things [for a kidney]. I've heard of people driving their car with a poster saying, 'I'm looking for a kidney can you please help?' There are a lot of avenues that people take in these situations."
In addition to getting a kidney of his own, Neal hopes he can help some others with kidney failure who are in a similar situation. A paired kidney exchange, for example, could match him with another donor/recipient duo for a swap. Neal also sees the Yeezy event as a catalyst for opening more people’s eyes to what they can do to help through organ donation.
Clearly, some people in high places have already been made aware of his situation. Among the people reaching out to Neal over the weekend was a representative from adidas who offered to give him a different size in the Yeezy 350 Boosts if he found a donor that wasn’t a size 10. According to TMZ, even Kanye West knows about Neal, and said he would replace his pair of Yeezy Boosts if they end up getting traded in the transaction.
That might not matter though. According to Neal, plenty of those responding weren’t even interested in the footwear. But, he’s insistent.
“A lot of people have been hitting me up saying they don’t even want the shoe,” Neal said. “At the end of the day I would like to give them something. It’s more about the personal relationship with that person. I would like to give them something for doing this. That’s why I posted it in the sneaker community.”
It’s worth noting that the outright buying and selling of a kidney is illegal in the U.S. Federal law also prohibits the trading of merchandise for organs, so Bergmooser said that this trade would still be considered illegal. But Neal isn't participating in any sort of black market transaction – the donation would happen through a hospital, and the shoes would be offered up as a token of appreciation.
"At the end of the day I would like to give them something. It’s more about the personal relationship with that person. I would like to give them something for doing this," he said. "That’s why I posted it in the sneaker community. All of their expenses, I’m going to pay out of my pocket. My health insurance covers the procedure on their end and mine. If they have to fly out here and lose work, I’m going to pay for that out of my pocket."
If Neal manages to find a match, he’ll be spared the five to seven year wait for a dead donor. He’s not sure how soon he needs a kidney, but says he’s taking care of his body to give himself the best odds he can.
“I don’t do any drugs, I don’t do alcohol,” Neal says. “The worst thing I do is drink a caffeinated pop here and there.”
Scrolling through Neal’s Facebook, it’s clear that the the proposed Yeezy/kidney trade has already changed his life for the better. His timeline goes from frustrations about a possible surgery to enthusiastic shares of his newfound good fortune and a couple admissions that he’s broken into tears over the whole thing.
Adidas has benefited from Yeezy Boosts thanks to the pairs sold and the hype created. Kanye West has benefited from his first couple of shoes with the brand being immediate sell-out successes. Sneaker sites have benefited from the traffic that comes from it all. Hopefully, Matt Neal can receive a far greater benefit by trading his in for a new kidney.
“I'm not trying to make money off of this. I’m trying to raise awareness of the fact that there’s millions of people in the USA and there’s millions of people that could go get tested and save a life,” he said. “If somebody else could reap benefits from this too maybe, that would be awesome.”