Though he didn’t know her, a former Navy SEAL came to a mother’s rescue just as pressure was mounting to find her a life-saving organ donor.
As 35-year-old Melinda Ray’s health deteriorated due to a polycystic kidney disease that spread to her liver, she and her husband, James Ray, were desperate to find a transplant. The condition caused continually spreading cysts to develop on Melinda’s liver, which led to it growing larger in size and placing stress on the rest of the organs in the increasingly cramped space.
The couple, who have three children and live in Colorado, came up empty-handed in their search for donor candidates, and as Melinda’s strength weakened, she turned to Facebook in September that detailed her emotional ordeal and offered a last-ditch call for help.
That Facebook message reached Robin Ihnfeldt, a best friend of Melinda’s sister, who texted the story to her husband, Jeff Bramstedt. The former 13-year Navy SEAL veteran instantly felt compelled to help the woman he had never met.
“When my wife told me about it, it just wasn’t okay with me that somebody was going to die,” Bramstedt, 47, of San Diego, California, tells PEOPLE. “It took me literally two seconds to make a decision and I just said, ‘I’ll do it, let’s go.’ ”
With Bramstedt on board, he and his wife both signed up to go through the screening process to find out if they were matches. Though his wife didn’t qualify because doctors discovered her blood clotted too quickly to undergo the surgery, Bramstedt continued on with the screening process, answering questions about his social history and taking blood samples, until doctors flew him out for more intensive tests. Then, around Thanksgiving, he returned to Colorado for the pre-op, where he met Melinda and James for the first time.
“As soon as I saw her, I was just instantly connected to her. They’re just such amazing people,” Bramstedt recalls. “We just talked for about an hour, and just got to learn about each other’s families, and we knew right away we were going to be connected for life.”
After doctors solidified Bramstedt as a match, he agreed to undergo a 10-hour-long surgery to give Melinda 30 percent of his liver that would eventually regenerate. Doctors explained he would be placing himself at great risk by undergoing the operation, but not one to let danger get in the way of things, Bramstedt—a movie stuntman and a skydiving instructor at Skydive San Diego—was set on going through with it.
On Dec. 4, the pair underwent successful surgeries, and Bramstedt spent two days recovering in the ICU. Once he was released, he and his wife stayed with a friend in Denver as he recuperated.
“My wife monitored my meds, and took care of me,” he says. “I don’t listen to doctor’s orders very well, so she was definitely the doctor’s lieutenant on that—very strict!”
Going on three weeks after the operation, Bramstedt says he is running on about a “three-hour battery” and is sleeping much of the day. But things are getting better, and he keeps in contact with Melinda and James often.
“I never had a little sister before, and now I do,” Bramstedt says. “I love her just like she was family, like she was a blood relative. In essence, she kind of is, we share DNA at this point. She’s stoked on life, and I’m excited for her.”
He says the experience changed the way he views the world, and he hopes other healthy people become inspired to become organ donors for those in need.
“If you have health and are strong, and if you are young and have all this energy and love to be active, maybe you are a prime candidate for somebody and can affect their lives in a positive way,” he says. “We need people who love people. An average guy can step up and be a hero to somebody whose life is going to end. Hopefully, we can make my and Melinda’s story not so extraordinary.”